Gisella di Vallepietra sat, as gracefully as she could, on the embroidered padding of the stool before her instrument. She brushed off her silky skirts, and threw (yet another) anxious glance around the two dozen guests now ambling to their seats in her father’s gilded sitting room. Signore di Vallepietra rarely threw such ornate dinner parties – he could barely afford their ornate Venetian villa as it was – but Gisella had spent months begging her father to host a fine affair which might showcase her hard-won musical gifts. He had finally agreed, with a few eyerolls, to plan an evening dinner in celebration of Ognissanti, All Saints Day. The di Vallepietra extended family and friends were thus graciously invited to an evening featuring the family’s very own Signorina Gisella. So Gisella sat, perched like an eagle, before her shining harpsichord as the candlelight shimmered off of the fine ivory keys.
It had only taken her an instant to choose her weapon for the evening since Gisella already knew what her favorite instrument was. After all, Gisella had attended her concertos, admired her mastery of the harpsichord many times before. In truth, it was because of her that Gisella had demanded that her parents purchase a harpsichord for the new villa – an expensive investment indeed – and for her sake that Gisella had abandoned the dulcet tones of her harp for the bright, plucky notes of her newest acquisition.
Gisella’s palms began to sweat as she scanned the sitting room once more. Her family’s butler began to glare at her nearby as he impatiently waited for the signal to begin the evening’s program. Gisella’s mind raced: where was she? She had said she would attend, weeks ago! Gisella pondered, frantically, if perhaps a more important family had invited her to their own party this evening. Perhaps – after weeks of hoping – the carefully laid plan was all for naught?
But a shuffling in the very back of the sitting room caught Gisella’s eye. She gasped sharply; there she was, at last and of course, fashionably late. The voluptuous Lady Carlotta strode in, glittering in a gold and cream gown with a bejeweled hand tucked in that of her brother, the Count di Carbognano. The Count was Lady Carlotta’s usual escort; her own husband was long dead (although rumor said Lady Carlotta herself had poisoned him). Some of the Gisella’s maids had even whispered that Her Ladyship was secretly married to a commoner – not that Her Ladyship ever limited herself. Gisella had listened carefully when the stablehands muttered that Lady Carlotta had lovers of all sorts, of all classes, of all persuasions. Most fascinating of all, to Gisella and her pounding heart, was the rumor that Her Ladyship enjoyed “unnatural” affairs. There was talk of a beautiful woman in Rome, a talented painter with her own workshop, who Lady Carlotta had known for years. But Gisella didn’t care; Lady Carlotta had been in Venice for months, after all. Some commoner artist in Rome was surely far from her mind (and her heart) by now.
It was for her, Lady Carlotta, that Gisella had composed tonight’s sonata. All she had to do now was play it.
Gisella motioned to the butler with a sharp nod, and his booming voice silenced the crowd on cue. Gisella timed her opening notes with a few soft taps of her right shoe on the white marble floor. With another quick breath, she began to play.
Gisella had titled her composition Achilles and Patroclus: the great lovers of The Iliad. She carefully allowed the deeper notes of the piece to ring clearly as the sonata transitioned from playful, to serious, to somber. Gisella told herself that she was playing only for her as her fingers flew over the keys. These thoughts, less chaste with every pluck of the strings, sent a bead of sweat trailing down Gisella’s forehead. Every few moments, she stole a glance at the onlookers: her indulgent parents in the front row, her aunts and cousins warmly smiling behind them. But try as she might, she could not catch Lady Carlotta’s face in the melee of waving fans. The remaining notes seemed to pass in seconds, and Gisella soon found herself rising unsteadily on numb legs before offering a curtsey to the smattering of applause. But Gisella jerked her head up just in time to finally glimpse the object of her affections, grinning at her brother, her dark eyes sparkling as she joined in the polite clapping.
Gisella had left nothing to chance that evening, and had surreptitiously stolen the seating chart for dinner only hours before the performance. Tonight, she and Her Ladyship would not be separated.
Signore di Vallepietra threw his daughter a raised eyebrow as Gisella glided to an open seat in the middle of the long table. Gisella smoothed out her skirts before casting her gaze demurely over the wall-size pastoral paintings which provided the dining hall’s main décor. The minutes ticked by, like the pangs of purgatory, as Gisella waited in perfect silence.
A ripple of familiar laughter jolted Gisella to attention. Lady Carlotta swept into the open seat to Gisella’s left as a footman gently pushed her chair closer to the table before them. Gisella flashed her new companion a broad, inviting smile; Lady Carlotta parried with a brief nod before offering the same to the young lord to her left. Gisella’s grin twitched slightly at this mediocre response, but it faded entirely as Lady Carlotta chattered away with the lord beside her throughout the primi course of tomato soup.
Gisella’s desperation deepened with each fresh dish placed before her as she failed, repeatedly, to draw Lady Carlotta’s burning eyes onto her own. Lady Carlotta, on the other hand, seemed to have a fabulous time as the witty conversation from the raucous guests around her sent her jet-black curls flying with each gasp of laughter. An hour passed; Gisella’s fingers grew numb as she gripped her fork.
Gisella took her courage in her hands once formaggi e fruta was served. She grasped at a brief dimming of the conversation to loudly clear her throat.
“Signora,” Gisella began, turning her entire body to face Lady Carlotta.
For once, the deep brown eyes turned fully onto Gisella, taking her in with a sweeping glance. Gisella swallowed back the thrill of finally winning her full attention, and forced herself to focus on the delicate task at hand. Around them, several pairs of eyes now bored into Gisella’s honey-blonde head.
“I understand that Your Ladyship is an accomplished player of the harpsichord,” Gisella continued, carefully measuring the flattery in her effusive tone. “I wondered if Your Ladyship enjoyed my sonata earlier this evening?”
Gisella clenched her hands in her lap, but kept her gracious smile pinned to her fair cheeks as she waited, expectantly, for a response.
Lady Carlotta’s eyes glanced upward for a moment, as if to gather her thoughts. Gisella waited as her fingers began to wring her skirts. The seconds stretched interminably; Gisella willed her breathing to slow down, her heels to stay silent on the marble beneath them.
“The composition was quite intriguing,” Lady Carlotta finally answered.
Gisella drew a sharp intake of breath.
“But the tone of the piece was not suited to the harpsichord,” Lady Carlotta quickly added. “I suspect the music would fare better on an instrument with a wider and deeper pitch range.”
Fare better. The words ricocheted through Gisella’s frantically churning mind.
“As to your performance,” Lady Carlotta continued, “while the opening stanzas were rendered capably, the middle section of the piece was too rushed for the notes to ring properly. A common problem, I can assure you, for amateur players like yourself.”
Gisella’s throat closed as her mind fixated on that brutal word: amateur. But her eyes darted sideways as Lady Carlotta gently patted her shoulder.
“Undoubtedly, my darling, you have a great deal of potential,” Lady Carlotta concluded warmly. “I am certain that you can achieve proficiency on the instrument with a few more years of hard work.”
Gisella’s smile remained etched into her features. She nodded lightly, even as her clenched hands trembled in her lap. The warmth in her belly, the delightful tension in her hips evaporated as Lady Carlotta turned her head back to the far more interesting guests around her. Soon enough, the merry conversation resumed, and all eyes abandoned the little wilted rose of a teenager.
Gisella held back her imminent tears long enough for a small bowl of pistachio gelato to appear in her field of vision. Mercifully, her father took this moment to offer a toast to the holy holiday. Gisella quietly excused herself, and dashed from her seat just as the guests’ heads rotated to the front of the table. Nobody noticed her disappearance; nobody cared, either.
A few running strides took Gisella from the dining hall back to the doorway of the vast sitting room. Gisella stormed past a handful of (mildly concerned) maids carting out used wine glasses before slamming the heavy door shut behind her. She quickly took in the fading candlelight illuminating the gilt moldings, the shiny wooden paneling along the walls, the strewn-about chairs where her family’s guests had gathered to enjoy her performance only a few hours before. At last, Gisella’s wandering eyes reached her own harpsichord, and the little embroidered stool. The very sight of the instrument, keys still glistening, stung Gisella like a curse.
Gisella picked up her heavy shirts as she rushed the makeshift stage. Fuming, she flung the pointed end of her high-heeled shoe into the padded stool and sent it flying. The little stool crashed violently against the wood-paneled wall behind it, and tumbled unceremoniously onto the rug below. One of the curved cherry-wood legs now bent precariously sideways.
Gisella’s assault wasn’t finished; she next gripped her fingers around the open edges of the harpsichord lid, barely missing the delicate keywell, and shoved the massive instrument with all her might. This time, however, the object of her rage only moved a few paces - but left a deep scratch on the stonework beneath. Gisella ignored the fresh damage, and gasped for air as she pressed her palms around the lid edge once more.
Gisella’s rage soon melted into despair. Slowly, deliberately, she closed her eyes. The tears now trailed down her cheeks in earnest as she recalled the hours sitting on that little stool, shoulders aching, as she pored over her own scratchy handwriting. How many nights had she spent imagining her composition, perusing old concertos, desperately crafting a piece that would surely amaze her?
Gisella grew nauseous as she counted the cost, and then counted the reward: amateur.
That was all she was, really: an amateur. Lady Carlotta was simply honest enough to say it to her face.
“I’ll never play again,” she hissed to the empty air all around her, the statues in the corners, the painted cherubs gracing the ceiling. “Never. I hate it!” She finally uttered the most bitter words of all: “She’ll never care.”
The cracking of the prop stick, which held the harpsichord’s upper lid aloft, did not rouse Gisella from her heartbreak. She never heard the swish, either, as the heavy lid slammed onto her unsuspecting fingers. But she screamed like a harpy as the sharp, burning sensation sent her staggering backwards. Gisella’s vision blurred with the pain as her fingers seemed to grow hotter with every passing second. Gisella tried desperately to regain her composure, but the effort only produced fresh cries and a new round of tears.
Several minutes passed as Gisella crouched pitifully on the floor, peering through a haze of tears. At last, she held her bruised, aching hands just inches from her eyes to assess the damage. Every finger was purpling, the knuckles bloated and stiff such that she could barely move them.
“Oh, my God,” Gisella whimpered in horror. Slowly, the flush of pain dulled as Gisella’s common sense returned, belatedly, to her. She gazed around, taking in the destroyed stool, the ruined floor, the damage to an instrument her parents could barely afford as it was. The full horror of her tragic mistakes washed over her as she drew her knees up beneath her silky skirts. Gisella realized that, like her tragic heroes of myth, she had fulfilled her own prophecy: she would never play again.