The crisp night air stung at Alberto as he gazed out from the battlements of his keep, the stars and half moon provided the only illumination of the scene below, mountains shrouded in the darkness vague shadows, the bay darker than the sky, obsidian waves lapping at the shore. He waited patiently for the sound of the bells to shatter the stillness of the evening. Soon, Alberto knew, the church bells across Corsica would ring, announcing in their uniform and numbingly same tones that a newsworthy event had occurred. Always the same; save for the number. A dirge sounded the same in substance as the call to mass of the faithful, or a wedding’s celebration. The pragmatism stunned Alberto, and an old nursery rhyme rang in his ears.
Men's death I tell by doleful knell;
Lightning and thunder I break asunder;
On Sabbath all to church I call;
The sleepy head I rouse from bed;
The tempest's rage I do assuage;
When cometh harm, I sound alarm
So spoke the bell. So it spoke on the day of his wedding. Upon his victorious return to Corsica after the fall of Cagliari. On the Birth of his son and heir, Chiano. The bells marked chapters in his life, punctuation, as it were, for his deeds. Now, Alberto knew, the bells proclaimed his son’s death, in the same singsong, mockingly uniform tones that rejoiced in his birth. To Alberto, this seemed a great travesty, that they should lack the proper expression to convey accurately the grief which threatened to overwhelm him. Yet it was so, and could not be otherwise. Chiano lay dead. Already, Alberto assumed, being dressed for his burial, his tiny form lovingly dressed and cleaned by Alberto’s servants, diligent in this as in all their tasks. The better to rot, Alberto thought bitterly. To rot as the lord he would never be.
The sickness took him suddenly, he awoke one morning with a fever, his cries of distress piercing the calm morning air and reverberating throughout the keep. Doctors were summoned who anxiously gave advice, suggestions on treatments, midwives providing the same wisdom in less learned terms. Alberto suspected neither knew the cause of the ailment or its cure. Yet he allowed them to do their work, and various liquids were sent down his son’s throat, a variety of techniques applied. Palliative at best, Alberto thought in retrospect. Throughout the day the child’s strength waned, his cries growing more infrequent and more tortured, his flesh growing slick with sweat and warm as the fever consumed him. Finally, his breathing ceased entirely and he grew cool to the touch. The bishop assured Alberto that now Chiano soared with angels, spared the cruelties of life in this world as well as purgatory. Yet the words were little comfort to Alberto, who merely nodded, assigning the man to prepare the funeral rites for the child.
Alberto rejoiced in Chiano from the moment he saw him, marveling at the product of he and Margherita’s union. A curious amalgation of their features, with peculiarly dark red hair remniscent of Alberto’s and Margherita’s slender nose, as well as scores of individual features, from the birthmark splashed across his shoulder that made him to freckles dotting his face that made him gloriously unique. A masterful being, truly, surpassing in beauty any child that Alberto had ever seen or dreamt of.. Immediately, dreams of the child’s life came to him in his mind’s eye, teaching the boy to ride, to rule, to lead, to fish, and a thousand other quaint scenes now impossible. In Chiano, Alberto saw the justification for the long sacrifice at Cagliari, for his kneeling before the Governor of Pisa and pledging his fealty, and so many of his actions in the last few years. He adored the way Margherita doted upon him, proud and honored again that in addition to being a spectacular wife, she made for an excellent mother. He knew the peasants whispered amongst themselves that she doted upon the boy, especially one so young, yet personally the intensity of her affection for the boy pleased him. Alberto knew he would count himself proud if even a fraction of Margherita’s personality surfaced in the boy. They made playful wagers on what words he would say first, and Margherita won when Chiano said Mama, Papa following a few days after. Alberto had been obliged to commission Margherita a tiara for their upcoming coronation as the Duke and Duchess and Sardinia in reply. The memories refused to perish with Chiano, the infant dead scarcely two months before his second birthday. The situation struck Alberto as strangely surreal, bizarre even, yet irrevocably true.
Alberto felt the grief rising in him, threatening to overwhelm him again. He refused to shed tears, as though to weep would confirm Chiano’s death above and beyond the still form in the crib. No, I must be strong he said. I can not succumb to this grief, or allow Corsica to succumb with me…I must be strong for Margherita. Margherita…Alberto shuddered at the thought of her wailing cries when she learned of Chiano’s death, the frenzied madness which consumed her. She sprinted to Chiano’s room, taking the corpse in her arm and rocking it at her breast, as though to revive it, weeping inconsolably and lashing out at anyone who tried to part them. Eventually, he succeeded only by physically taking Chiano from her, prying his lifeless body from her arms. The memory filled him with revulsion, and he struggled to keep the bile down. He gave three men the task of guarding her, to ensure that a repeat performance would not occur. Occasionally, even this far away from their chambers, he could hear her cries even now. He had thought perhaps the distance and the stone walls between them might prove a sufficient barrier. Evidently, he had been wrong. He knew no words to console her, no elixir to cure her suffering. Indeed, only the constancy of action kept him from reflecting long enough to grieve. He should go to Margherita, he knew, hold her in his arms and assure her that in the end, they would endure this tragedy, as they endured others. Yet he lacked the strength, and fled here, to the same precipice where he eagerly awaited her ship’s arrival in the bay that morning which now seemed a lifetime ago. Yet he did not go to her, he remained here, shivering silently in the night air, waiting for the bells to announce his son’s death to Corsica. He did not know that he could endure another confrontation with her.
Just a week before, Margherita informed him, without any of the madness that seemed evident in her voice now, that they would soon be parents to yet another a child, a brother or sister for Chiano. With Chiano gone, Alberto wondered if that child should look the same. He wondered aimlessly if he could take it into his heart with the same unguarded affection he showed Chiano, without reservations or fear of its mortality. Would Margherita, he thought, be as open to this newborn, as welcoming? He knew that only time would tell. As a certainty, he knew only that whatever child his wife bore him, it would not be Chiano. Chiano would never be again. Perhaps, he thought, I should send for Germano. Yes, Germano, his bastard. Perhaps another child’s presence in the castle would remove some of the sting of Chiano’s absence, indeed, Alberto hardly knew Germano. Certainly he never once held him in his arms, nor whispered dreams of a bright future in his ear as he did with Chiano. Germano he remembered only briefly, the infrequent missives from his foster parents and the occasional payment to his mother, now married. Sons were not a commodity he now felt he could afford to neglect in any form.
Suddenly, the night’s calm and Margherita’s wailing, her aggrieved moans drowned out by the peeling of bells, echoing crisp and clear through the night. The same mind-numbingly same tones. Alberto closed his eyes and let the sound fill him, taking scarce solace in the fact that soon the entire Island would join its Lord and Lady in mourning. Indeed, the motions of grief, the offerings of the burghers and the various courtiers seemed odious to him, hollow and effusive declarations of sympathy from individuals who never once delighted in Chiano’s bright blue eyes. Yet he would welcome them. Alberto would go through the motions. He would do his duty, as he was born to do. For Corsica and for the unborn child in Margherita’s womb, no doubt confused by her distress. At last, he felt a tear form in the corner of his eye, the bells even now ringing more insistently. Alberto wept, for all that could not be and never would.