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Excerpt: Murder in the Eternal City

Book 16: Captain Lacey Regency Mysteries

The first English person I encountered as I wandered the vast city of Rome in February of 1820 was a man I already knew. 

Or at least, I thought I knew him. I spied him outside the great church of Sant’Agnese en Agone in the Piazza Navona, that plaza that glides its wondrous length where an ancient stadium once stood. I’d paused to admire the fountain designed by Bernini with its vast marble figures that represented the great rivers of the world. An obelisk—purloined from Egypt—filled with mysterious hieroglyphs, rose from its center.

I had been contemplating these hieroglyphs, which I’d grown interested in during my sojourn along the Nile, when the gentleman in question ambled from the interior of the church and into a tiny passageway that led from the piazza to narrower streets behind it.

I called out, but over the fountain’s rushing water, a sudden wind, and a group of tourists that had come to see the piazza, he had no hope of hearing me.

Curious, I left my post and followed him, wondering if I had indeed recognized the fellow. I did not know him well, but I’d been introduced to him at one of the many gatherings in England I’d attended as the guest of my friend Lucius Grenville.

My quarry seemed to be in no hurry, and I thought I’d quickly catch up to him. However, as I emerged from the passageway, the walls next to me grimy and flaking, I found myself in another narrow street crossways to mine but empty.

The fellow must have picked up his pace and plunged down yet another lane that led from this one. I heard a step and turned that direction, following an artery that ran between tall houses on one side and the bulk of a church wall on the other. I rounded the front of the church, which was shut this early in the day, and continued.

My confidence that I knew my way around these back streets began to evaporate as I turned another corner, and then another. When I’d arrived in the city a few days ago, I’d spent hours exploring it, with an entire afternoon at the ancient Forum Romano and the wreck of the Colosseum. Brewster had poked about with me, and I had thought I’d learned Rome quite well.

But at present, I had to admit I was hopelessly lost.

No sign of my gentleman either. Presumably he lodged somewhere nearby and had entered his abode when I’d been in another lane.

As I had no compelling need to speak to him and no reason to pursue him other than curiosity, I abandoned the chase. Now to find my own lodgings.

The passageway I stood in was quiet. I could hear the distant rumble of a cart, the shout of a vendor in a market hidden from me, and the clang of a bell from a watercraft on the Tiber. This small lane of private houses was deserted, shutters above me closed tightly. 

I made my way back around the church, in which, if I recalled correctly, Grenville had last evening showed me a fresco by Rafael painted on its wall. The art had been dim with age but arched grandly above an alcove in a side chapel.

Then again, that might have been another church entirely. Every street in Rome had two or three churches springing up from the pavement, distinct places of worship for different guilds, great families, and foreign residents.

Grenville had hired a house near the Piazza Navona for a few days so we could see the sights before a short journey south to Napoli where I would visit the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Our wives had remained at Grenville’s villa north of the city, those ladies preferring walks in manicured parks to stumbling over muddy ruins.

I’d convinced myself another turn through an alley, empty and dark between soaring walls, would take me back to a wider road that led to the piazza, but I was wrong. I emerged instead on the bank of the river, with a finely arched bridge to my left. At the end of the bridge to my right rose the squat tower of the Castle Sant’Angelo.

That, at least, was a familiar landmark. I could stroll along this side of the Tiber and find another street to take me to my lodgings.

A few more turns into the maze showed me I was again mistaken. I rounded another corner, the fetid smell of the river fading behind me, and collided directly into a man coming the other way.

I took an instant step back, leaning on my walking stick to keep myself upright. 

“I do beg your pardon, sir,” I said as politely as I could, though he had rushed into me, not paying attention to where he was going. 

The fellow was Italian, as tall as I was, with a thick head of dark hair. He appeared to be about my age—a few years past forty—and dressed in a subdued dark suit made of fine material which contrasted his muddy and worn boots.

A scowl marred his face, and a pair of dark brown eyes glared at me. I tried to apologize in my faulty Italian, which only made his scowl deepen.

“Ah, you are English,” he snapped in that language. “Wandering about, getting in the way.”

“Lost, I am afraid, sir. Can you direct me—?”

“Do you not carry a map?” 

His churlishness began to annoy me. I put a sterner note into my voice. “I had not planned to stray from the Piazza Navona. If you will point me in its direction, I will endeavor to keep to my allotted place before I depart your fair city, and cease disturbing you. Your errand is apparently an urgent one.”

The fact that the man remained in place during this speech instead of scoffing and striding off was encouraging. By the end, his demeanor had softened, though he had not entirely unbent.

“Forgive my temper,” he said. “My errand, as you say, is urgent. Go through this street, then around to the next one over, and another jog …” He let out an exasperated breath. “With me, sir.”

He spoke like a soldier. I fell into step behind him as we quick-marched up the lanes, my walking stick tapping, and back to the wide expanse of the piazza.

“Thank you,” I said with sincerity as we reached the open vista under a gray sky. “Captain Lacey, at your service, sir. My lodgings are there.” I pointed with my walking stick to another opening across the square that led in the direction of the Pantheon. The house Grenville had taken backed onto those that lined the piazza. “If ever you have need of a bumbling Englishman, you may call on me.”

I was trying to be amusing, having no idea what sort of service I could offer him when I lost myself within a few streets of home. 

The man looked me up and down. “Not bumbling. And, in fact …” Another once-over. “At present I could use the assistance of what you English term a stout fellow.”

“Oh?” I was not certain how robust I would be if he had need of strength. My leg, injured during the war, had already begun to ache from our rapid pace.

Red stained the fellow’s cheekbones. “It is my daughter. She … If I do not retrieve her, she—” He broke off, shaking his head. “I will understand if you want nothing to do with my family and our troubles.”

“Not at all. I have two daughters myself.” One was a grown young lady, and I had a notion of what sort of troubles he meant. 

His flush cleared when he saw that I’d grasped his inference. “Excellent. My name is Proietti, Alessandro Proietti. I was once a colonel, but no longer, although I cannot seem to leave off the habit of giving orders.”

“Indeed? What regiment?” I asked with interest. Bonaparte had recruited and conscripted plenty of Italians when he’d invaded, especially in the northern states, though many had joined the Austrians to oppose him.

“I was in an infantry regiment under the Holy Roman Emperor against the Corsican upstart. Retired as soon as we rid ourselves of him. Now the Austrians have walked into places where the French were, and I’m not certain we’re better off.” His bitterness reflected what I’d heard from many as we’d traveled south from the Alps.

“I too, have retired. Wounded on the Peninsula.” I tapped my left leg with my walking stick, and Proietti sent it a look of sympathy. “Now, as to this errand.”

Proietti’s clouded countenance returned. “A blackguard, as you say in your language, has convinced my daughter he would be a far better husband to her than I am a father. Husband.” He spat the word. “He has no intention of being honorable. Blackguard is a very good word for him.”

As an outsider, I could not judge whether the abductor was right to spirit the daughter from the heavy hand of her father, but the worry on Proietti’s face told me differently. A brutal father would be obsessively enraged and would never have stopped, however reluctantly, to assist a stranger. 

I would accompany him and see whether I could help. If it became clear that I was wrong about Proietti, I’d take myself from the fray and hunt up a watchman.

“Very well,” I said. “Lead on, Colonel.”

Proietti’s expression became one of gratitude. “It is not far, I assure you.” He turned toward the alleys.

A heavy tread behind us stopped me before I could follow. “Who’s this then?” Thomas Brewster asked as he reached me, sending a surly glance to Proietti. 

Brewster was my bodyguard, tasked to keep me safe in the streets of Rome. I had neatly evaded him this morning, though it had not been on purpose. I’d wakened early and decided to stroll the piazza on my own, never thinking I’d run into mishap on so short a walk.

“Just the man,” I said. “This is Mr. Brewster, Signor Proietti. Another stout fellow.”

Indeed, Brewster, formerly a pugilist, had a fighter’s build and girth, massive hands, a nose that had been broken more than once, and a gaze that would wilt the most resilient opponent.

Brewster turned those hard eyes on me. “What you on about, guv?”

“An important mission, to assist this gentleman,” I said by way of explanation. “Your presence would be welcome.”

Brewster regarded me stonily a moment then heaved a long sigh. “Here we go.”

Proietti, once we finished our exchange, strode from the piazza into the passageway from which we’d emerged. I followed him quietly, and Brewster came behind me, his steps far less muffled than mine.

* * *

Proietti took us through a bewildering array of small streets with tall houses on either side. An occasional fountain burbled in unexpected courtyards that were quickly lost behind us. Grenville had explained that I could drink from any of these fountains and find pure, clean water that had flowed from faraway springs since ancient times.

Signor Proietti finally halted before a six-story house that was a faded shade of green, topped by a mansard roof with dormer windows. He stepped to the black-painted front door and pounded on it with his fist.

The door was opened almost immediately, not by an angry young man or an annoyed landlady, but by a stiff servant with gray hair who stared coldly out at Proietti in obvious recognition. They exchanged no words, and at last the servant stepped aside and admitted us.

Proietti charged in without pleasantries. Brewster and I followed at a more discreet pace. 

I’d half expected to find a dilapidated boarding house with a wild and handsome young man declaring he’d never send his beautiful and weeping young lady back to her family, as happened in poorly written melodramas.

Instead, I stepped into grandeur—though one that was waning. The high ceiling, decorated with gilded vaulted arches, framed ceiling paintings that rivaled any I’d seen in nearby churches. A staircase rose in magnificence before us, winding its way to the top of the house.

Proietti ran up this staircase without waiting for the servant. Brewster, who was wont to duck below stairs the moment we entered a grand house, came behind me as I more slowly mounted the stairs. Brewster studied the artwork and small trinkets strewn about the place with a professional eye as we went. He had once been a thief, a good one, and sometimes still was.

Proietti gained the next floor and banged open a door. I followed him, my walking stick ringing on terrazzo tile, to double doors leading to a large sitting room, one door swaying on its hinge.

As I entered, my lingering imaginings of a melodrama fled. The chamber was well furnished with lush chairs and settees similar to what Grenville had placed into his tastefully decorated villa. Long windows gave a view of the Tiber, over which rose the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.

The man who’d moved to meet Proietti in the middle of the room was quiet and respectable, older than I’d envisioned, with gray in his hair. He might be in his early fifties, nearer my age and Proietti’s than my daughter’s.

The young lady who’d risen from a divan when Proietti had stormed in was comely, though not of overblown beauty. Her blue gown of fine cotton, without many frills, was what any young lady might wear on a given morning. She’d pulled her dark hair into a simple knot, two curls dangling to her cheeks.

She was about Gabriella’s age, which again made me understand Proietti’s concern. If circumstances had been different, this might be my daughter attempting to elope with an older, likely wealthy man. Gabriella seemed to have been raised with good sense, but the allure of wealth could turn an impressionable girl’s head.

An older woman remained on a chair next to the divan, her back ramrod straight, her plain lavender gown a good canvas for the diamonds that glittered on her chest. More winked in her ears behind her iron gray hair. She bathed Proietti and then Brewster and me with a look of profound disapproval.

The conversation proceeded in Italian, a language of which I knew only the rudiments. I’d learned much Spanish and Portuguese during my time in the Peninsula Wars, but Italian was different enough from those to cause me to lose the thread.

I heard the words, her father from Proietti, and incapable and inefficient—at least I believed—from the other man. The daughter, with much spirit, moved immediately to the two men and joined the argument. The older woman, by resemblance the gentleman’s mother, planted her hands on her walking stick and glowered at us all. Occasionally she interjected a word or two, and the shouting would pause, only to resume when she fell silent, her mouth in a hard line.

I concluded, as the voices rose, that this was a private house, owned or leased by the gentleman. No landlord came rushing in to complain, and no neighbors in other rooms shouted about the noise. 

The gentleman eventually swung to me, a frown on his face. Proietti’s daughter also shot a puzzled glance at me, clearly wondering who I was and why I’d brought along a ruffian. 

The man directed a string of words at me. He didn’t snarl or behave like a boor—he was angry but held himself more in check than did Proietti.

Proietti barked something at him, and the older gentleman’s words slid smoothly into English. 

“Why have you come here?” he demanded of me.

I gave him a polite bow but kept my tones cool. “A gentleman asked my assistance to retrieve his daughter. I could hardly decline.”

The man’s face creased with displeasure. “You know nothing of this. I have not stolen her away, and my mother, a worthy chaperone, lives here with me.” He gestured to the woman on the chair, who by her expression understood every word.

“He is married to another,” Proietti snapped. “A blackguard, as I told you.”

The gentleman’s chilly demeanor reminded me of James Denis—Denis being a criminal overlord in London. Could this man be as dangerous?

The gentleman lifted his hand. “My marriage is nothing to concern you.”

I wondered if he planned to divorce his wife for this lively young woman. I wasn’t certain of the laws regarding marriage in the Papal States, where Rome was located, but I was certain they’d be strict. I’d read that during Bonaparte’s occupation he’d instigated many reforms over the whole of the Italian peninsula, including legalizing divorce. But once he was gone, I believed laws had returned to what they’d been prior to his invasion. 

However, this gentleman could be implying that his wife was at death’s door—if so, he was rather callously choosing her successor.

“You have no right to keep my daughter,” Proietti snarled.

The older woman spoke from the sofa, her English even better than her son’s. “She is a guest. My guest.” 

The gentleman’s voice grew stern, its iciness deepening. “My mother has invited Signorina Proietti to stay in my home, and Signorina Proietti has made the choice to do so.”

Proietti switched to Italian to appeal to his daughter. I did not understand much, but I knew he was asking her to come home with him.

The daughter lifted her chin. “No, Papa.” The words were clear in any language. 

A discreet cough at the door announced the haughty servant who’d admitted us. Several larger young men dressed in livery, likely the household’s footmen, followed him. Brewster stiffened behind me, ready and willing to fight if need be.

The older gentleman turned to me. “Forgive my manners, sir, but you are not welcome here. Colonel Proietti is also no longer welcome. Please leave at once, Proietti. You will not be admitted again.”

Signorina Proietti’s eyes constricted, tears moistening them, as though she’d not meant to have her father banished from the house. Her infatuation for the cool gentleman beside her was clear, but I could see she preferred that her gentleman and her father be friends.

Proietti opened his mouth to argue, but I stepped forward. None of my business, I knew, but I did not want to see Proietti thrown down the stairs. Nor did I need Brewster to be arrested for bashing his fists into the man’s servants.

“Perhaps this can be discussed later,” I said. “At a set time and place, on neutral ground. You can understand, Signor, why a father wishes reassurance that his daughter will be taken care of? And you, Colonel Proietti, want your daughter’s happiness above all things.”

Proietti turned a look of irritation upon me, but the older gentleman, to my surprise, nodded in agreement. He and his mother had kept their tempers best out of anyone in this argument. 

“I agree,” he said to Proietti. “I will meet you with my men of business and explain things to you.”

“Will you indeed?” Proietti demanded, clearly not believing him.

“He has said so,” the older woman stated in disdain.

“Papa, please,” Signorina Proietti said in Italian—I understood the simple phrase. “I wish this.”

“Return home and take your retainers with you.” The gentleman’s words were in English, for my benefit. “I will send word when I can meet.”

“Very well.” Proietti growled the assent, but I could see he thought nothing would come of this meeting. He turned to his daughter, imploring her with a long look one more time, but she shook her head. She didn’t like to turn her father away, but the pull to the rich gentleman was, at the moment, too strong.

The footmen were ready to advance. Proietti at last snapped off a curt nod to the gentleman, a slightly more polite one to his mother, and strode from the room, the servants parting to let him pass.

I gave the gentleman, Signorina Proietti, and the older woman another bow. “I beg your pardon for disturbing you. Please make certain you have this meeting, Signor.”

“It will be done.” 

The gentleman spoke without a qualm, and I suspected he’d win this war. I recognized a person of strong will and influence when I met him.

The daughter now seemed less certain, yet she sent me a regal nod, already practicing to be mistress of this house. The older woman did nothing, said nothing, but it was plain she was finished with us.

I started after Proietti, Brewster’s heavy tread behind me. The footmen melted from Brewster’s path, and I noted their obvious relief that they wouldn’t have to test themselves against him.

Downstairs, we emerged into the narrow street and the cool February air, the sky still cloudy. I smelled moisture—rain was coming.

Proietti waited for us at the end of the lane. I’d half expected him to disappear and leave me behind in his frustration, but he lingered, if restlessly.

“I will see you back to your lodgings,” he said when we reached him. “I do not need you wandering all over again.”

We set off at a quick pace, my knee now truly aching from all the activity.

“Who is he?” I asked as we went.

“Aristocrat,” Proietti said, the word clipped. “A bloody conte. Trevisan is his name. From Milan.” His sneer spoke volumes. A wealthy man, not even from Rome, who’d moved in and ensnared Proietti’s daughter, was not to be borne. 

Brewster shot a glance at me, and I returned a minute nod. James Denis had asked a favor of me before I’d set off from London—to seek a count who resided in Rome and arrange for Denis to purchase a small statue from him. That count was not called Trevisan, but the coincidence startled me.

Proietti proceeded at a rapid march, and I hurried to catch up to him.

* * *

Proietti said nothing more as he led us to the Piazza Navona, where he tipped his hat. “Thank you, Captain Lacey,” he said. “I am sorry you had to witness such a scene.”

“Not at all,” I assured him. “I suppose the conte will keep his word to a meeting?”

“Oh, he will.” Proietti’s words held disgust. “He prides himself on his correctness. He will bring men of business and lawyers with him.” He let out a heavy breath. “I suppose I’d better do the same. Good day, Captain.”

He held out his hand, and I shook it. 

“Good day,” I returned. “If you have need of me again, please do call. I am lodging in a house near the Palazzo Giustiniani, though we depart in the morning for Pompeii for a few weeks. A letter to the Villa Bella in Napoli will reach me.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Proietti said with true gratitude. “I hope it will not be necessary. Buon viaggio—have a fine journey.”

We parted after this cordial exchange, and Brewster and I made for the far side of the square. 

“Shouldn’t have promised him that,” Brewster warned as we went. “Who knows what sort of muck he’ll drag you into?”

“I sympathize with him, is all,” I said, a bit defensively. “Gabriella is about his daughter’s age, perhaps only a year younger at most.”

“But Miss Lacey has a good head on her shoulders. Not flighty, prancing after the first bloke she meets with money and a fancy title.”

I agreed with Brewster, and was pleased he said so, but I always held a father’s worry. “I do wonder what Conte Trevisan was hinting about his marriage. Does he mean to divorce and remarry? Or simply have Proietti’s daughter as his mistress?”

Brewster shrugged. “Who knows? Rich blokes can do anything they like, can’t they? Or maybe he didn’t know the right words in English.”

“He spoke very well. I’ll wager he’s fluent in several languages.”

“Aye, well. None of our business, is it?” Brewster’s tone held annoyance. He was here to keep me out of mischief, which I’d proved in the past too apt to dig myself into.

I said nothing more as we crossed the piazza, weaving our way through vendors, beggars, tourists, and others who were emerging to begin their morning. Brewster sent me a chary glance but fell silent.

The house Grenville had hired lay across a narrow street from the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. Beautiful paintings by Caravaggio adorned that church, which I’d gazed at for a long while the day of our arrival. Such stark realism in Caravaggio’s works, at the same time depicting the mystical and sublime.

Grenville had risen while I’d had my morning walk, and he breakfasted in a small room on the second floor of this narrow house. 

Lucius Grenville had enough wealth, I suspected, to buy the conte I’d met this hour twice over, but one would never know it by the modest home he’d let and the subdued suit he wore. He had, however, immediately employed a chef so we would eat the finest meals possible during our sojourn. 

Brewster had absented himself to the kitchen, and I seated myself at the table in Grenville’s breakfast room, accepting coffee in a small cup from Grenville’s valet, Gautier. 

“Had an adventure this morning,” I began.

Grenville had patted his mouth with a napkin after he greeted me, and now the eyes above the white cloth filled with irritation. “Of course, you did.” Grenville lowered the napkin. “Because I lingered in bed and then decided to sit down to a lavish breakfast.”

“It was not as exciting as all that.” I had to be amused, Grenville always adamant that my life was far more interesting than his. I took a sip of coffee, which was quite rich and good. I had already decided that the best thing about Rome was its coffee. “I will start with catching sight of an Englishman. I have been trying to remember his name— Ah, I have it. Broadhurst. His given name … Norris, I believe? Yes, it was. Was introduced to him at a racing meet, or some such, that I attended with you.”

Grenville had gone very still. “Norris Broadhurst?” he repeated, an odd note in his voice. “You could not possibly have seen him, Lacey.”

I raised my brows. “I am willing to wager he was the man I spied coming out of that church. I tried to greet him, but he vanished.”

“Well he might have, my friend.” Grenville regarded me gravely. “Norris Broadhurst is dead. Has been this past twelvemonth.”

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