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Authors: Simonetta Agnello Hornby

Nun (9781609459109)

BOOK: Nun (9781609459109)
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Europa Editions
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New York NY 10011
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www.europaeditions.com
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright © Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore Milano
First publication 2012 by Europa Editions
Translation by Anthony Shugaar
Original Title:
La monaca
Translation copyright © 2012 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
   Cover illustration: Reflection by John Francis
Copyright © by Getty Images
ISBN 9781609459109

Simonetta Agnello Hornby

THE NUN

Translated from the Italian
by Anthony Shugaar

But, as I've read love's missal through to-day,
He'll let me sleep, seeing I fast and pray.
—
JOHN KEATS
 

CHARACTERS OF THE NOVEL
 

The Padellani di Opiri Family

Don Peppino Padellani, younger son of the Prince of Opiri, gentleman of the chamber of King Ferdinand I, field marshal in the royal army in Messina;

Donna Gesuela Aspidi, daughter of Baron Aspidi di Solacio of Palermo, wife of Don Peppino Padellani.

 

Anna Lucia, born in Naples, married in Catanzaro, died in childbirth at age fifteen;

Amalia, born in Naples, married in Messina to Domenico Craxi, a citrus fruit merchant;

Alessandra, born in Naples, married in Naples to Tommaso Aviello, a lawyer and Carbonaro;

Giulia, born in Naples, married in Messina to Salvatore Bonajuto, owner of a maritime shipping firm;

Anna Carolina, born in Naples, engaged to Fidenzio Carnevale, a landowner and wealthy manufacturer of essential oils;

Agata, later Donna Maria Ninfa in the convent of San Giorgio Stilita, born in Messina;

Carmela, born in Messina, where she marries the Cavaliere d'Anna.

 

The Relatives

Cousin Michele Padellani, Prince of Opiri, and his wife Ortensia;

Aunt Orsola,
née
Pietraperciata, Michele's stepmother and widow of Prince Antonio Padellani di Opiri, older brother of Don Peppino;

Admiral Pietraperciata, brother of Princess Orsola Padellani;

Aunt Clementina Padellani, married to the Marchese Tozzi; the cousins Eleonora and Severina Tozzi;

General Cecconi, Donna Gesuela's second husband.

 

The Household Servants

Annuzza, housekeeper;

Totò, footman;

Nora, personal maid of Donna Gesuela in Messina;

Rosalia, personal maid of Donna Gesuela in Palermo.

 

Others

Giacomo Lepre, Agata's first inamorato;

James Garson, captain in the British navy, Agata's last inamorato;

The Cavaliere d'Anna, Agata's first suitor, later the husband of Carmela;

Dr. Minutolo, physician of the Benedictine convent of San Giorgio Stilita.

 

The Religious

The clergy

Cardinal Vincenzo Padellani, first cousin of Don Peppino Padellani;

Father Cuoco, Agata's father confessor;

Father Cutolo, father confessor at San Giorgio Stilita.

 

At the Benedictine convent of San Giorgio Stilita

Donna Maria Crocifissa, sister of Don Peppino Padellani and mother superior and abbess;

Donna Maria Brigida, sister of Don Peppino Padellani;

Donna Maria Clotilde, prioress;

Donna Maria Giovanna della Croce, teacher of the novices;

Donna Maria Immacolata, sister infirmarian;

Donna Maria Celeste;

Angiola Maria, lay sister of Donna Maria Crocifissa; Sarina, lay sister of Donna Maria Crocifissa; Checchina, lay sister of Donna Maria Brigida;

Nina, servant of Donna Maria Brigida;

Brida, servant and cook.

 

At the Benedictine convent of Donnalbina

Sister Maria Giulia, sister of Don Peppino Padellani.

1.
Messina, August 15, 1839.
The reception at the Padellani home for the
Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
 

T
he tender morning sunshine sifted down through the skylight, filling the room below and highlighting the pink marble of the Baroque staircase. “Make haste, Don Totò!” Annuzza cried urgently. Standing on tiptoe, she leaned over the balustrade and emphasized her words with broad gestures: “Make haste, His Excellency is waiting!” The footman's arms were wrapped around a huge, broad-bottomed hamper covered with a heavy cloth. He panted at each step, but he climbed steadily all the same, the mingled aromas of warm bread, olive oil, salty sardines, and toasted oregano infusing his creaky old knees with renewed vigor.

Another footman hurried down the last flight of stairs to meet him. Don Totò refused to be lightened of his load and so, preceded by the two other servants, he made his entrance into the yellow bedroom. They were breaking down the furnishings. The wrought-iron bedsteads–footboards, headboards, and crossbars adorned now with painted roses–lay stacked on mattresses whose midpoint was stained with faded menstrual blood. An armoire door, swinging half open, revealed the desolate cavity from which Annuzza and the two governesses had extracted the gauzy summer dresses belonging to the Padellani girls. In the middle of the bedroom stood an improvised table: the footmen had tossed a tablecloth over a pile of cardboard boxes and now they stood waiting, with their master, for the arrival of the
sfincione
.

 

“Excellent, Totò!” Without even waiting for his wife, Don Peppino Padellani whisked the cloth off the hamper, unveiling carefully arranged, overlapping squares of the Sicilian-style pizza, each layer protected by lengths of oiled paper. The aroma of
sfincione
wafted impetuously through the air. The old field marshal eagerly wolfed down a bite, and as he ate he pointed a finger at the hamper, encouraging the footmen to take some for themselves. They ventured forward with a restraint that proved short-lived: they were soon tearing off mouthfuls of
sfincione
with their teeth and gulping them down; their mouths still full, they made a beeline for the hamper, fingers straining for another piece.

 

Don Peppino Padellani di Opiri, the cadet son of a venerable Neapolitan aristocratic family and a Gentleman of the Order of the Golden Key of the late King Ferdinand I, had been transferred to Messina in 1825, with the rank of field marshal in the army of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. He had seen the town before, on military duty in 1808, when he was sent to observe the trial of the pro-French conspirators, and again in 1810, on the glorious occasion of the English army's success in repelling King Murat's attempted invasion. He had also spent several months there in 1820, with his spouse, the Marescialla—as the wife of a field marshal is known in Italy—at the time of the Sicilian uprisings, when the prince and heir apparent, who was also the king's lieutenant general in Sicily, moved the seat of government from the rebellious capital of Palermo to the steadfast, loyal city of Messina.

A general shortage of funds, the enormous expense of life in the capital city of Naples, the cost and burden of educating and marrying off his five daughters—in the meantime, two more daughters had swelled the family's number—and the desire to live in a city that was in easy contact with Naples and the rest of the world had convinced the field marshal to ask the king to transfer him to Messina, and he hadn't regretted it for a single day ever since. Despite their difference in age, the field marshal in his mid-seventies and his thirty-seven-year-old wife were determined to enjoy their lives there and make the most of Messina's high society, where they were treated with all the deference due to his rank and Padellani lineage.

The Marescialla was renowned for the elegance and refinement of her balls and soirées, but the
ferragosto
reception was unrivaled. Every August 15, the Padellanis began celebrating the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary first thing in the morning, offering piping hot
sfincione
to the entire household—coachmen, stable boys, and house servants alike. On that day, and that day alone, Don Peppino, Donna Gesuela, and their numerous daughters mingled with the help and treated them as equals—though the reverse did not apply. It was their way of winning forgiveness for their occasional failure to pay salaries and encouraging the servants to take on cheerfully the task of breaking down the household furnishings in the early morning and then reassembling the whole place that evening—at midday the great reception was scheduled to begin, and the Marescialla would entertain the most prominent townspeople and the most influential visitors for the entire duration of the religious procession, and even afterward. All of the drawing rooms, two of which were normally used as bedchambers, would have to be brought back into ceremonial use. The three daughters who still lived at home slept in fact in the yellow drawing room, where the reception for the household servants was now taking place.

The servants and the footmen “on loan” from relatives and friends for the occasion considered it a signal honor to be offered
sfincione
—a magnificent dish—with the masters of the house. Every year the baker added a new variety of
sfincione
, on the specific instructions of Donna Gesuela, who always ordered enough to ensure that no one was left wanting more. The leftovers were then bestowed upon the footmen and maidservants of the woman who owned the palazzo. She was a distant relative of the Aspidi, Donna Gesuela's family, and she offered her distinguished tenants the use of her own staff and a room, on the other half of the residential floor, in which to stack the furnishings that were being cleared away from the drawing rooms. Before long, the two coachmen and the stable boy also trooped upstairs, followed in turn by the kitchen staff. Don Peppino, who had preserved his captivating Neapolitan sense of humor, unfailingly amusing and never mean-spirited, kept them entertained with his renowned witticisms. The unmarried chambermaids came upstairs two-by-two and stood at a respectful distance: they listened raptly, eyes sparkling, speaking only when addressed by their master. The two governesses, on the other hand, joined freely in the general conversation, even when Don Peppino spiced up the talk with a bit of bawdiness.

The Marescialla was running late, and neither she nor the girls had yet arrived for their taste of
sfincione
. “Girls” is how Annuzza—who had been in Donna Gesuela's service since the day she came into the world, and who was now a nanny in what spare time she had—still described Anna Carolina, sixteen and on the verge of being engaged to be married, Agata, thirteen, and Carmela, the youngest, who was seven. Despite the field marshal's urging, the respectful servant refused to sample the
sfincione
before her mistress had a taste. As soon as she saw her opportunity, she darted out of the room to go in search of Donna Gesuela. She knocked at the door of the master bedroom—the last of the drawing rooms, the blue room. There was no answer. She put her ear to the door. Donna Gesuela was loudly scolding one of her daughters, but Annuzza, who was hard of hearing, couldn't tell which of the three it was. She knocked again and waited. Then she made up her mind to go in—she alone, of the household staff, could occasionally venture to cross that boundary. Without furniture, the field marshal's bedroom seemed enormous. Along the walls, unmatched chairs stood in a row, provided for the occasion by the neighbor; in one corner, the men had piled up headboards and bed slats to be used in setting up the
tablattè
, or buffet. Beneath the Murano chandelier, and arranged in a circle, facing outward, were four armchairs, over which were draped—like so many ghosts in search of a body—the clothing and accessories that the women of the family would wear at the reception: dresses and gowns were draped over the backs, arms, and seats of the armchairs. Gloves and hats were laid on the skirt, without wrinkling it. Arrayed in front of each armchair was a pair of pastel-colored silk slippers.

Still wearing her dressing gown and nightcap, Donna Gesuela had shoved Agata against the wall and was speaking to her urgently, gesticulating as her voice rose and fell. Her daughter wasn't answering. Annuzza tried to catch a glimpse of Agata's face, but the mother's body blocked her view.

“Enough! I told you: enough!” At that, Donna Gesuela dropped her arms and stepped away; ashen-faced, Agata stared at her and said nothing. Her mother resumed her assault: “I'm telling you for the last time: they won't have you, and it's because you're not rich! Do you understand? Keep your hands off that one! He'll play with you as long you amuse him! But after he drops you, who'll ever want you again? No one! No one! You understand? Answer me!” The disheveled sleeves of the blue brocade dressing gown concealed the girl, who had slid back against the wall, from Annuzza's gaze.

“Answer me!” she said again, in a voice dripping with menace.

Annuzza was afraid that Agata had fainted; then she heard a faint murmur: “But I already told you, Madame Mother, his grandfather approves.” A brief pause. Then, with furious conviction: “He wrote that to me in a letter!”

“Wrote to you? In a letter? What! Who gave him permission to write to you? And I suppose you've written back to him, too, you hussy!” she yelled, slipping into dialect; she paused, and then continued in Italian: “Are you trying to ruin your prospects? Are you trying to make sure your sisters can never be married?”

“I haven't done anything wrong! He's the one who writes to me. I never write to him—well, almost never.”

Her mother threw her arms out in a melodramatic gesture, then stood arms akimbo, fists on her hips, and inhaled, puffing out her chest. “
Almost
never!
Almost
never!” she said, over and over, her large black eyes glittering like smoldering embers.

“Begging Your Excellency's pardon, but they've brought the
sfincione
,” Annuzza broke in, and then added, lying: “His Excellency the field marshal asked me to come find Your Excellency.” Gesuela turned to look at the servant. She hadn't heard Annuzza come in. Gesuela's lovely face was drenched with sweat and twisted with emotion. Her black ringlets, painstakingly pinned back and now damp, were poking out from under her lace nightcap. Annuzza felt a surge of pity for her, but she didn't know what else she could do. She was released from her predicament by little Carmela, who had taken refuge on the balcony. When she heard the word
sfincione
, she cried: “Let's go!” and held out her hand to her mother. After a moment's hesitation Donna Gesuela took her daughter's hand and, without even bothering to fix her hair, headed for the door, muttering under her breath: “I swear I'll kill her!”

Annuzza trailed along behind her, scuffing her feet, and clutching with one hand in her pocket the latest letter that Giacomo Lepre had given her to deliver to Agata.

 

The crowd of servants parted to make way for the arrival of the Marescialla and her two youngest daughters; they greeted them with a chorus of
Voscenza benadica
—bless Your Excellency! Leaning over the hamper and revealing to the household help more of her generous bosom than was entirely necessary, Donna Gesuela checked to be sure that the baker had followed her orders to the letter. With her languid Palermo accent she reeled off a string of questions without waiting for answers: “Ciccio, how was the
sfincione
with cheese?” “Filomena, the black olives were pitted, weren't they?” and last of all, addressing everyone: “Did you like the soft-bread crust?” Then she handed Carmela, who was glued to her hip, a slice of
sfincione alla palermitana—
a bed of boiled and sliced onions, with bits of anchovy and strong cheese mixed into the dough, barely visible, and covered with a crunchy layer of breadcrumbs sprinkled with olive oil—and then sank her teeth into her own piece, dressed with finely sliced potatoes and eggplant. As she chewed, she glared at her other daughter. Don Peppino watched them and then wrapped one arm around Agata's waist and offered her a bite of his
sfincione
—“
Mangia
,
mangia,
daughter of mine”—whispering in her ear: “Don't worry, deep down, your mamma is a good mother!”

The food was simple but tasty. The lemonade and the water with anise seed were both refreshingly cool—the Marescialla had told her cook to add crushed ice—and the house servants, who remained behind while the other servants went back to their respective stables and kitchens, were still laughing at Don Peppino's witticisms. Donna Gesuela listened, lips twisted in a smile, an absent gaze in her eyes. Suddenly she exclaimed: “Who brushed the formal uniforms? Have the white gloves been washed?” This time she wanted an answer, and so she broke up the party. Then, having received no reply whatsoever, she retraced her steps in furious haste, followed by Anna Carolina and Carmela. Before crossing the threshold, she shot one last parting glare of reproof at Agata, but Agata was looking at her father, who had bent down to pick up the fan her mother had dropped and was now extending it to her. Donna Gesuela arched her handsome eyebrows and did nothing to retrieve the fan. Then she strode off, entering the room, swinging her hips.

 

“Where's Anna Carolina?” her father asked.

“She's fixing her hair. A curl from her hairpiece fell into her cup of chamomile tea!” Agata giggled.

“Hair is a very important matter for a young woman who is going to be engaged today,” her father reproached her. “I can just imagine the state you would be in, if the same thing happened to you.” The field marshal ran his wrinkled fingers through his daughter's chestnut ringlets. “You're thirteen years old. Your mother was already my wife, and if I'm not mistaken, a mother as well, at that age.” He paused. Agata, shorter than Gesuela, resembled her closely. She was likely to be even prettier than her mother, because she had the grey Padellani eyes—sloe-eyed, with the oriental eyelids introduced into the family by a Mongol princess who had captured the heart of one of their forefathers. The field marshal wanted his little Agatina to be happy and loved. “Start casting your gaze around you, and tell me who it is that pleases you . . . ” Then he withdrew his hand, and his voice grew serious: “But remember, it's my decision. You must have a husband who is wealthy and worthy of you and of our family.” Agata blushed. “Ah, so there's already a sweetheart? Well, we'll talk it over, after Anna Carolina's engagement . . . one daughter at a time, otherwise you'll wear me out. I really am becoming an old man.” And Don Peppino fixed his eyes on the green-and-white herringbone majolica tile. He was sweating: his chest was heaving faster than it had been, while the hand that was fluttering the fan was slowing down. But Agata noticed nothing. She'd been thinking of Giacomo.

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