In a Bright Glass by Virginia Marybury
In the dome of heat which was Ravenna in late summer, only the tower clocks and priests could be seen and heard to be at work. Sunday was a day of bodily idleness, when only the mind and spirit toiled – or rejoiced – in their worship, depending on how much they enjoyed their communion with God. Over the port, one of the barrage balloons drooped, but it could not be re-gassed until after the Sabbath. Engines and furnaces were shut down, although automata and mindless gadgets served unobtrusively here and there, in palazzi and wealthy homes.
Llewellyn-Gareth’s artificial leg was also concealed, and well oiled, so that he might walk to church like a man natural and complete, even if he was a Protestant.
He had departed before the rest of the household awoke, in order to avoid the usual clamour as Signora Pietri bossed the maidservant and two glass-work apprentices – while her son and husband escaped scolding. All of them grumpy from fasting before mass.
Despite his early start, the cool shadows were stale, and Llewellyn himself was soon sweating as he made his way through quiet streets which grew progressively narrower after he left the city’s main artery, the Via dei Cavalieri di Lombardia e Venezia, the Street of the Knights of Lombardy and Venice.
The Protestant church stood at the edge of the port district. The three-storey, whitewashed aedificium had been built in the seventeenth century, when Alpine floodwaters finally washed out Venice, prompting the Republic to decant its wealth, workshops and population south to Ravenna.
There were no Gothic effects here, just a Byzantine dome which the city’s workmen had built and rebuilt, hundreds of times. It had been more a work of charity – and for oversight of this foreign population in the border march – than to glorify God. Now, two hundred years later, even the grace of those simple lines was lost in the huddle of administrative buildings, the infirmary and the Protestants’ Hostel.
Inside the arch of the church gate, he was safe in his own parish. Llewellyn crossed the courtyard with care, for it was dark overhead and uneven underfoot, thanks to the mighty yews and oaks. The door to the Hostel was a modest entrance in the southern wing of the complex, with a plain, low lintel. Llewellyn entered without ceremony, and went to find Gustav.
“Good morning,” Llewellyn began formally, when the gaunt, well-bearded German opened the door into his musty little chamber. “God be with you.”
“And also vit you,” mumbled Gustav, waving his visitor back into the corridor, before shambling out himself and leading the way back to the atrium, where he unlocked the guardian’s cabin.
“It came last week. Hier.”
Llewellyn grasped the precious brown-paper packet with both hands, and then tucked it under his arm, so that he could pull a glass bead out of his inner breast pocket. “I made it this week. My thanks, Gustav. God be with you!”
Gustav clutched the bead, and mumbled, “See you in church.”
Llewellyn made his way back to the courtyard, where the staleness was of coal fumes and the not-too-distant dirty brine of the docks: better, at least, than yesterday’s cooking and washday inside the Hostel.
In the courtyard’s only sunny spot, he seated himself on the modest wooden bench which faced a stone tablet bearing the names of all the vicars of this scattered parish: nearly two centuries’ worth, all Dutchmen, Germans and Englishmen. There were probably identical tablets in Florence, Siena and Livorno, which all shared one priest, since a Protestant vicar was not permitted to settle in any Italian city.
Carefully, Llewellyn broke the seal on his parcel and unfolded the wrapping, setting aside the onionskin letter, to read the little bundle of thick card, machine-printed with music and the words of a hymn. Across the top, a pencil notation in his father’s hand read: This recently came out of Ireland, a translation of one of their hymns, dating from before their First Viking Resistance.
Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
The melody, which he recognised as an Irish folk tune, started revolving in his head.
He turned to the letter.
Fy annwyl Llewellyn, it began, in Welsh.
Thank you for your last letter and the drawings of the city. Your leg must be strong indeed, to have let you climb the tower. Now let us see the results of your other trade! When do you expect to be able to send the lenses? Remind your master of the terms of the contract. We have paid generously beforehand, and they are to be completed between Lammas and Michaelmas, so they may be despatched before winter shipping rates come into effect.
It looks as though we will have a good harvest this year, thanks to the bonemeal formula. Some guano fertiliser came into Bristowe, somehow, and Arthur has set aside one test field for it, so that we will know if it is worth buying more, if it ever again makes its way this far north.
There followed a table of acreages, showing land under cultivation, cost of fertiliser and last year’s yield. Then columns of numbers laid out the Danelaw quota-prices from autumn into spring.
Æthel-Carys continues her weaving and has reduced wastage by one twentieth. Another column of figures. The rest of the letter consisted of news of musical events in Bath, the doings of friends and tenants from the farms, and two more reminders of the contract for the lenses. When he finished reading, Llewellyn closed his eyes for a moment. Even in his father’s hand, figures could never be as dear as words. However, Hugh-Gareth had never fully mastered his wife’s Welsh, whereas his mind was always full of numbers. He never put his tables on a separate sheet of paper, either, so Llewellyn had to sacrifice the first two pages of the letter – cutting off the first half of a description of a new opera, The Lion and the Unicorn.
He searched the remaining pages to ensure he had not missed any other figures, then crumpled the sheets into a small ball and placed it on the ground, amid the dirt of tobacco droppings and the ashes of many other letters.
The sun had surged higher in the sky, and now filled his corner of the courtyard.
He took a small double convex lens out of his inner pocket, where it had been rubbed clean, and set it on his lap, to focus the daylight.
The sun made a bright spot on the crumpled edge of the ball, illuminating a number: 51,1.
Despite the wantonness of burning paper, the natural miracle of focussing sunlight gave him joy. When he completed the giant lenses for his father, the sun would be a new harvest, even in northerly England and Wales. Now the country blanketed itself in coal smoke, but once miniature circles of sun began to glow across the country, the frenzy of burning for warmth would ease.
The ball of paper rolled suddenly, a grey wisp emerging from the core of it, before the flow steadied into thin ribbons of smoke, finally making ashes of Hugh-Gareth’s precious writing.
The remainder of the letter was safely folded in Llewellyn’s lap, clear of the burning glass. He held it, as though it were his father’s hand.
Beyond the church walls, the tower clocks were self-important in their dispensation to make noise on a Sunday. Llewellyn groaned faintly, to cover the discord, then got up to hobble to the church door.
“Almost late,” observed the seated nun, in Italian.
He cleared his throat. “Forgive me, Sister Michaela. Where is the ledger?”
She presented it to him. Her own signature headed the list for that week, dominating the marks made by Gustav and his cousin Paulus, and even Father Conrad’s Dutch copperplate script. Llewellyn signed Llewellyn-Gareth ap Evan, and wondered when the little priest had arrived from Florence. Surely not just this morning?
She interrupted his thoughts. “You really will be late.”
The Byzantine dome was empty except for the echoes of Llewellyn’s uneven footsteps, his tapping cane, and the impatient Sister Michaela’s sandalled feet behind him. Gustav was still praying, but Paulus stared gormlessly up into the space. Father Conrad smiled over their heads as the last two members of his tiny Protestant congregation approached.
When Llewellyn and Sister Michaela sat down, the tiny Dutchman in front of them spread his arms and sang out, “The Lord be with you!”
Llewellyn’s lungs swelled with breath, and he sang back, “And also with you!”
“Lift up your hearts!”
“We lift them up to the Lord!”
Father Conrad’s voice ranged hoarsely within the bounds of the psalmodic scale. Sister Michaela left her pew and went to serve him sips of water, and when everyone had taken communion, the vicar quaffed the remainder of the wine with clear relief.
Llewellyn wondered how old the vicar was, and how long it would be before the church would call him home to Delft, for good.
It was a fine thing, to have an inheritance waiting after a long exile.
When the Pietri household returned home that evening, Llewellyn was re-reading his father’s letter in near-darkness, conning the strokes of his father’s pen with his fingertips.
A sudden outburst of sharp anger and disgust, audible from below, shattered his concentration. What the devil was the matter?
He tucked his letter into his pillowcase, slid along his bed-pallet to the shelf where his leg was resting, and let the limb fall onto the bed without a sound. He quickly leaned out to open the door, and listened as he pulled his leg into place.
No-one ever watched him putting on and shedding his artificial flesh, so they had little idea how long the procedure took. He had come “fully formed” to Magister Pietro, sold into a second indenture at eighteen, a transaction which paid his first master for the leg a third time over. While the young man already had some of the skills Magister Pietro needed, such as managing a furnace and handling dangerously hot materials, his new master had no knowledge of clockwork, anatomy or the metallurgy of artificial limbs, and no desire for any such knowledge.
Once Llewellyn had deftly slid the stump of his leg into the cup, and cinched up the straps, he lingered on the stairs, listening to Marco Pietro’s mother ranting about harlotry. She had evidently been dammed up until now, for her voice was fresh and strong. Magister Pietro’s interjections were made in a hoarse voice, so he must already have had a long say in public, about something other than the trinketed whore, accepting the gifts of a prodigal son, and parading them as though they were some sort of dowry rather than the illegitimate wages of harlotry.
Llewellyn’s eyebrows rose. That was certainly not material for the ears of others. Magister Pietro was not excessively pious, and the range of subjects which provoked him was limited. If he had lost his voice shouting, most likely the trinkets were beads, stolen by Marco from the family’s market stall, and the girl had worn them to church. She was probably no whore at all, just an indiscreet girl of good family.
His curiosity satisfied, Llewellyn limped demonstratively downstairs, feigning timidity in the face of his masters’ anger.
Signora Pietro did not moderate her language in the presence of the apprentices, so the cold, unseasoned Sunday supper was unusually lengthy and well peppered.
When the clock struck nine, Magister Pietro raised his hand and, on the last strike, thumped the table. His wife fell silent, and Marco Pietro raised his head.
“Son. Marco. You are not worthy of an officer’s commission. I cannot even trust you to go to market. Tomorrow you will join my workshop and learn the trade. You will lodge with the other apprentices, and you will not be a gentleman of this house again until you have served seven years, unless I sell your indenture to someone else.” He leered unpleasantly at the other apprentices, before frowning again at his son. “Di Franco will probably buy the market stall from me, but he may haggle to get it cheaply if he learns of your shame.”
Llewellyn wondered whether the girl could be pregnant. Surely not. Marco was not yet old enough for the cadets, and tonight he looked no more than ten. He had no beard; his hair was tangled in childish curls, nothing like the smooth waves of a seducer; his eyes were red-rimmed with tears; and for once, he was not glib, but dumbstruck and wretched.
The household were dismissed, and Marco sent to bed in his new quarters, no doubt to be pinched and tweaked in the night by Flavio and Gianni.
Llewellyn only just remembered to affect his noisy limp for his retreat upstairs to his own room, so strong was his instinct to slip away without drawing attention to himself.
No doubt, he would be the one training the boy. He wondered what kind of pupil Marco would be. His hands might be deft, from handling money and beads in the market, and it was known that his fists were handy, so he was strong, too. Arrogant he had been, but the shame of being indentured – enserfed – by his own father might tame him. If not, could Llewellyn humble him enough to teach him something, and keep safe the giant lenses which were the most important commission the workshop – and Llewellyn – had ever had?
This is the first chapter of In a Bright Glass by Virginia Marybury. See below for ways to purchase the book if this teaser chapter has fired your interest. Bookmark Steampunk Journal to keep up to date with the latest news, reviews, articles and previews.
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