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Authors: Elsbeth Edgar

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BOOK: The Visconti House
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Laura looked at him diffidently. She wanted to say something more, to say how awful that was and how sorry she was, but Leon had gone over to the wall and was peering at the faint images. From the way he had turned so abruptly, she knew that he didn’t want to talk about it.

“Yes,” she replied. “What’s left of them.” Laura pulled back the curtains and light flooded in. It illuminated the unmade bed, the scattered books, the piles of clothes, and fell across one wall where dark patches of paint still suggested an Italianate garden with trees, the top of a fountain, and the remains of sweeping steps. Leon squinted at it.

“That’s the best bit,” said Laura, coming over to him. “But there are some trees over there too, and part of a hedge.”

“I wonder who painted it,” murmured Leon. “It’s awesome.”

“It must have been wonderful when the whole room was a garden,” said Laura.

“Yes. Like stepping into a dream.” Leon lightly touched the painted surface. “Did you find any photos of this room when you went to the library?”

“How did you know that was what I was doing at the library?” Laura asked.

“I just guessed. Did you?”

Laura shook her head. “No, there were no pictures of the inside of the house at all, only the outside.”

“Have you tried the Internet?”

“Of course. There was heaps and heaps of stuff about people named Visconti, but nothing about our Mr. Visconti.”

It wasn’t until the words were out that Laura realized what she had said. She had called him
our Mr. Visconti
— as though Mr. Visconti belonged to Leon, too.

Leon leaned forward to examine the painting more
closely. “I could help you look for things, information, if you’d like.”

“I’ve looked at everything.” Laura shrugged. “There isn’t anything more to find.”

“You don’t know. There may be.” Leon was tracing one of the trees with his finger. “Different people look at things differently.”

Laura hesitated. Leon was not like anyone else she had met. She liked talking to him, and it could be fun looking for Mr. Visconti together — after all, she thought again, who would ever find out?

“All right,” she said, then added, “Would you like to see the other rooms?”

Leon grinned. “What do you think?”

They ended up going through the whole house together, even the empty sections with their crumbling plaster and dust and grime. Leon climbed over the boxes in the sheds, fingered the old, rotting curtains, and looked out of every window. To Laura, he seemed to be making lists in his mind. Lists of what he was seeing, or maybe of what he wanted to remember. Perhaps it was because he saw everything in a mathematical way, she reflected.

Laura discovered that it was more intriguing
exploring the house with someone else, someone her own age. It had been fun in the attic with Isabella, but this was fun in a completely different way. It was like looking at the house with someone who was the same height, who saw things from the same angle — although differently, which was what made it interesting.

Leon was so enthusiastic, she even told him some of the stories she had imagined in the different rooms. “This,” she said, leaning out the window of a small upper room, “is like an aerie, like a tower room. It looks out over the world. You could imagine a servant coming here, escaping in her dreams, couldn’t you? She would have so little time and be so tired but, for a moment, from this window, she could fly away.”

Leon leaned out too, narrowing his eyes as he looked past the fruit trees to the dusty hill beyond. Laura watched him reach out to touch the rough wall and then turn back to the dark room. He seemed to touch everything, she thought.

Finally, he replied. “It would be hard for your servant to return.”

“A little harder each time,” she agreed. “Maybe one day she doesn’t.”

“It’s a good story. You should write it down.”

Laura thought of the little pieces of paper
fluttering to the desk in the stuffy, closed classroom and of her dragon book, which she could no longer write. She wondered how much Leon had actually guessed about her.

“It’s just a story,” she said. “Let’s go downstairs.”

The kitchen was empty when they returned. Laura’s parents were still busy working and, although it was almost dinnertime, there was no sign of dinner. After all their exploring, Laura was famished. “Would you like some pancakes?” she asked Leon.

Leon raised his eyebrows. “Pancakes?”

“Yes.” Laura suddenly felt rather silly. “You don’t have to have any.”

“No, I’d like some. I was just surprised.”

“Why?”

“It seems a bit late to have pancakes. When do you usually eat?”

Laura shrugged. “Whenever someone cooks dinner.”

“That sounds like my dad.” Leon looked around. “Where are the pancakes?”

“I’m going to make them.” Laura hesitated. “Will your grandmother care when you get back?”

“No. She knows that I’m here.”

The pancakes turned out well; Laura was proud of them. While they were cooking, she showed Leon her book with the photocopied articles and her box of information about Mr. Visconti, leaving him to pore over them while she tried, not always successfully, to flip the pancakes in the pan. Fortunately, there was butter and jam in the fridge. She wondered whether to just put the containers on the table but decided, in the end, to do it properly and scooped the jam into a bowl and cut a slab of butter for the butter dish. Then, remembering Isabella, she moved a vase of forget-me-nots onto the table.

“The pancakes smell good,” said Leon, looking up.

“You can start. I’ve almost finished.”

“No, I’ll wait.”

Leon had been leafing through the book. He stopped at an article from 1898 and pointed to one of the paragraphs. “This is interesting — this bit about the visiting singer.”

Laura leaned over his shoulder, the frying pan suspended in the air beside her, to see what he was
referring to. “Yes, it says that the singer stayed with Mr. Visconti and gave a concert here in this house.”

“So he must have been sociable once, despite what Grandma remembers,” said Leon. “Do you think the concert was held in the ballroom?”

“Maybe. Or maybe in the painted room. Perhaps it was a music room.”

“It would make a good music room.”

“Yes. With a grand piano and everyone dressed in beautiful clothes and the Italian tenor singing among the painted trees. It would have been wonderful.” Laura sighed, thinking again of Isabella. “I wish there was a picture of it.”

“I wonder what the people in the town thought of it all. Pretty strange, I imagine.”

“They always think everything different is strange,” said Laura bitterly.

Leon looked up at her for a moment, his expression once again inscrutable, then went back to reading the newspaper article.

When the pancakes were ready, Laura cut up a small one and put it in Samson’s bowl. He ran over and sniffed at it. She then put the others on a plate, and for a while they concentrated on eating, although Leon continued to flip through the book. When most
of the pancakes were gone, he turned his attention to the box. The first things he noticed were Laura’s sketches of the house.

“I like these.” He looked up at her and grinned. “Your perspective is a bit odd, though.”

Laura made a face at him, but strangely she did not feel offended.

Then Leon caught sight of the postcard. “What’s this?” he asked, picking it up. He studied the picture of the wide street with its tall palms and elegant people, then turned it over to look at the writing on the back.

“What language do you think it is?” asked Laura.

“Italian, maybe,” suggested Leon, staring down at it. “Yes, I think it’s Italian.”

“Can you read it?”

“No.” Leon continued to study it. “If it’s Italian, my dad could, though.”

“Would he translate it for us?” asked Laura tentatively, remembering how he had reacted the last time she mentioned his father.

“Of course. Where did you find it?”

“On the floor of the attic. Perhaps it fell out of a trunk or a box that was stored there.”

“Perhaps.” Leon was studying the stamp. “But this is not Italian,” he said. “It’s a French stamp.”
He turned the postcard over and looked again at the boulevard. “It looks like the south of France.”

“Have you been there?” asked Laura, her mouth full of pancake.

“Of course not.” Leon raised his eyebrows at her.

She frowned. “Then how do you know it’s the south of France?”

“I didn’t say I knew. I just said it looks like the south of France. I’ve seen pictures of Nice and they have palm trees, just like this. And there’s a French stamp.”

“Maybe the words will tell us something,” said Laura.

“There’s no signature. Just a
G.
And the address has been smudged. I can’t read it. Can you?”

Laura shook her head. “That could be a name,” she suggested, pointing to a word at the end of the second line. “Alessandro.”

“Maybe it’s a place. Alexandria?”

They both stared at it for a while, then Leon turned back to Laura’s book. He found the page where she had copied information from an obituary.

“His name was Carlo,” he said.

“There’s definitely no Carlo on the postcard. Nothing that even looks like
Carlo.
” Laura was still
gazing intently at the writing on the card. “If it
is
in Italian, though, it must have been written to Mr. Visconti.”

“Maybe.” Leon took another pancake and looked across at Laura. “So, what do we know for sure about Mr. Visconti? We know that he was Italian and that he came to Australia, probably in 1894. We know that he built this house and lived in it and invited a singer to perform in it and that he died, probably in 1938, and is not buried in the graveyard here.”

“We know that he went for walks.”

“And we know the house. I mean, what the house is like. It tells us something about him — that he liked gardens, for example, and art.”

“And that he was rich,” added Laura.

“Yes. I wonder what he was rich from.”

“One article says that he was a diplomat.” Laura flipped through the pages, looking for it.

“I don’t think diplomats make that much money,” said Leon. “Not enough to build this in the 1890s, at any rate.”

“Maybe he already had money. Maybe he came from an old aristocratic family.”

“Who?” asked Laura’s mother, coming into the kitchen.

“Mr. Visconti,” replied Laura. “But why did he settle here?”

Laura’s mother buttered a pancake and bit into it. “Mmm, these are delicious,” she said, sitting down. “Imagine me having a daughter who is a good cook.” She smiled at Laura and started buttering another pancake. “Maybe there was a love affair.”

Laura stared at her in amazement. “What kind of love affair?” she said.

“The usual kind. Perhaps it ended tragically.”

Laura was thinking furiously. “But of course,” she muttered, “that would explain everything.”

“Not everything,” said Leon.

“Well, lots of things.” Leon nodded in agreement. Laura continued to look at him, her brow furrowed in concentration. “Perhaps that was why he came out here.”

“And maybe she died,” added Leon.

Suddenly, there was a chill in the air.

“I should be going.” Leon pushed back his chair. “It’s getting late. Thank you for the pancakes, Laura. Would it be all right if I take the postcard?”

Laura nodded. “I’ll come to the gate with you.”

The sun was setting, and the bushes along the driveway threw long shadows across the path as they
walked down it. Samson appeared from his favorite flower bed, mewing, and Leon picked him up. When he tickled him under his chin, Samson purred and Laura laughed. She realized that her afternoon with Leon had been really enjoyable. She was glad he had come.

“Should we go to the library tomorrow and look at the papers again?” asked Leon. “I’d really like to see the photos there.”

Laura gulped. This would mean going into town with Leon; when she had said he could help her look for information about Mr. Visconti, that was not what she had meant. She felt Leon’s eyes on her face and had the uneasy sensation that he was reading her thoughts.

“All right,” she said quickly. “I’ll meet you there after school.”

“OK.” Leon thrust his hands into his pockets and wandered off, unhurried.

Laura turned back toward the house. She looked up at the dark monkey puzzle tree with its spiky leaves clustered along its thin branches, biting her lip. Someone was sure to see them in the library. What would they think?

Laura was careful to leave very early the next morning so that she would not bump into Leon. While she didn’t mind him coming to the house and she was prepared to meet him at the library, she did not want to be seen walking to school with him. She could just imagine what Kylie and Maddy would say then — if she arrived at school with Leon Murphy, she would simply never live it down.

When Leon did not turn up for their first class, however, Laura felt rather disappointed, and as the day drifted on and he still did not appear, she realized that she was quite deflated. She had been looking forward to showing him Mr. Visconti’s photographs in the library after school. When classes finished for the day, she wondered whether to head straight home — after all, he was probably sick with a cold — but a niggling feeling of responsibility made her go to the library first, just to check. As soon as
she walked in, she saw Leon, sitting at a table by the window with the file on Mr. Visconti open in front of him.

BOOK: The Visconti House
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