Note: The following is the prologue to my novel about the 16th century Roman noblewoman Beatrice Cenci. It might not make it into the published novel, but it introduces you to the character.
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Copyright 2011 Vicki Kondelik.
Beatrice's heart leapt to her throat as she heard the rattle of the key turning in her cell door's lock. Perhaps a last-minute reprieve had been granted? She had clung to that hope with all the tenacity of her sixteen years. As her lawyer, Prospero Farinaccio, advanced into the dim light of her single candle, she searched his face and found the answer: all hope was in vain. Her life was to be cut short, and her baby, little Cristoforo, was to be left without a mother. She collapsed in tears onto the narrow plank that served as her bed. What was to become of her son? Few people even knew the boy, who had just passed his eighth month, even existed. She hated to think that he would grow up all alone in the world. At least she had known her family, even if her father had been a monster. If only there were a way for him to know who his mother was, and that she loved him and would be thinking of him up to the last second of her life.
But perhaps there was a way, after all. She would give him all the money she had inherited from her mother. Slowly, with her body in excruciating pain after nine hours on the rack, she rose from the plank, wiped the tears from her cheeks with her sleeve, and turned towards the pudgy lawyer. She knew that he would see the red welts on her forehead, caused by the iron strap tearing into her head while she was being tortured, but at this point she didn't care.
Farinaccio laid a hand on her shoulder and kissed her on the cheek, then she led him to one of the two hard, flimsy chairs at the rickety wooden table. As they sat down, she set aside the dishes from last night's supper of tuna, egg casserole, fruit in snow, and claret wine. "There, there, Signorina, don't be frightened. It will all be over soon. It only hurts for a split second, so they say. The pain you suffered on the rack was much worse. It is truly a miracle you survived that."
"But at least I'm alive. I survived nine hours on the rack even though there was little chance I would. But there is no chance at all that I'll survive this!" she thought, wanting to scream at him. She felt a lump in her throat as she struggled to form the words, "Messer Farinaccio, I think you know that I have a son."
"Yes, Signorina. Under the saddest of circumstances, of course," he nodded.
"I wish to make a codicil to my will, to provide for him. When you asked me to make my will--when I thought there was still some hope--I left a large amount of money to Sant'Onofrio, where the monks are taking care of him. But how can I be sure they'll give the money to him? I want to be certain of that."
"Certainly, Signorina. I shall write up the document immediately. I cannot mention him by name, or your secret will be known, but I can do it in such a way that your intentions cannot be mistaken. And I will see to it that he gets the money. I'll come to the orphanage every year, on the anniversary of this day, and give it to him myself."
She dictated to him, and he wrote in his careful legal hand, "I, Beatrice Cenci, being of sound mind, do hereby declare this to be my last codicil to my last will and testament. I do hereby bequeath to a certain poor boy at the orphanage of Sant'Onofrio, the sum of one thousand scudi per year until he shall reach the age of twenty. When once he reaches that age, he shall receive the sum of fifty thousand scudi for life. Signed and sealed, this eighth day of September, the year of Our Lord 1599."
"Sign here, Signorina," Farinaccio handed her the quill.
She signed her name, "Beatrice Cenci," in her fine, elegant handwriting, but as she bent over the paper, her heart filled with the thought of the child she would never know and who would never know his mother, her tears spilled onto the paper and blurred the wet ink. "Oh, I hope it's not unreadable! Should we do it again?"
"No, it's perfectly legible. The monks and I will always look after your son. Never fear." He rose from his chair and made to leave, but she touched his arm to stop him.
"Messer Farinaccio, do you know how soon... it will happen?"
He sighed, "I do not wish to lie to you, Signorina. It will be today, I think, any hour now. But I think you should know, there is still some hope for Bernardo. He is so very young, the Holy Father has shown some signs that he will spare his life."
"Thank God!" Beatrice exclaimed. At least her beloved younger brother would live. Perhaps one day he and her son would get to know each other. That was the dearest wish of her heart.
Farinaccio placed an arm about her shoulders. "Please believe me, I tried my best to obtain a pardon for you, too. But nothing, not even your extreme youth, would move the Holy Father's heart. I am so terribly sorry."
"Messer Farinaccio, I know you have done your best for me, and I am thankful for that. I have made my peace with God, and now I have made sure my son is provided for. I will always remember your kindness, up to my last moment on this earth."
"And I will never forget you, Signorina. I have never seen a girl of such courage in my life. I can only hope that your son will grow up to be worthy of you. And I think you should know that the people of Rome have taken you to their hearts. Their sympathy will sustain you when it happens." With that, he clasped her hand, which was as cold as ice even on this stiflingly hot September morning, and took his leave.
Beatrice lay down and let out a sigh of relief, knowing that her son would live in comfort now for the rest of his life. No matter what happened to her in her final moments, he would be safe. She closed her eyes, resigning herself to her fate, but she only slept for about an hour; when she woke, the gray-cloaked, black-hooded brothers of the Order of St. John the Beheaded slipped through her door. She shuddered at their demonic forms, but calmed down as they whispered, "We are here to comfort you on your way to the scaffold, Signorina. It's time to confess your sins, so you may die with a pure soul."
And so she knelt, her hands clasped and her knuckles turning white, as
she faced her persecutors. No one must be allowed to see her trembling.
She lifted her eyes and stared beyond their faces, whispering, "Forgive
me, Father, for I have sinned..."