After much deliberation, I write here of the bizarre events that befell me and my closest companions in Venice in 17–. What is to be the fate of this manuscript, I do not know. Perhaps I will burn it immediately. At the very least, I will include instructions that it is not to be published until after the death of the last living member of our current troupe, for it includes details that would all but guarantee the attention of the Inquisition. To further protect everyone involved, I will use no person’s true name, but rather the names of the characters we most often play in our comedies, or—for those who are not actors—pseudonyms.
We are a classic traveling Italian comedy troupe of ten actors playing ten classic roles: two sets of idealistic lovers (Isabella and Lelio, Flaminia and Flavio), two disapproving fathers (greedy Pantaloon and loquacious Doctor Breakbones), one braggart soldier (Captain Courageous), and three servants who play tricks on everyone and get the lovers together in the end (Pierrot, Harlequin, and Colombina).
Although they play a lowly valet and maid, the leaders of our company are Pierrot and Colombina, and they are married. Unlike his famous character, our Pierrot does not fear being made a cuckold by Harlequin. Not that it doesn’t happen, but he doesn’t fear it. For you see, Harlequin is lover to them both.
I say this not to shock the reader, but to demonstrate the nature of our company, which I can attest is free and affectionate but not licentious or lascivious. Never have I feared the lewd passions of my male colleagues, as so many other women must, as Isabella has told me is shamefully common in other troupes.
I daresay our leading lady, our Isabella, must rival the great Isabella Andreini for whom the role is named—for she is beauty and wit incarnate onstage, and so warm and playful off of it. How could one not fall in love with her? I play Flaminia, the secondary female lover, but never have I been jealous of her higher billing. If anything, I am jealous of Lelio, who gets to romance her endlessly onstage.
As one might assume from the contented fellowship of Pierrot, Colombina, and Harlequin, my romantic desire for women is no issue within the bounds of our company. (Captain Courageous and Lelio are also intimate friends). Still, I kept my ardent longing for Isabella secret, as I knew not the lady’s feelings, and such love is—outside the tender home of our company—still a crime. Besides, she is the daughter of a Venetian nobleman, and her black hair shines like polished onyx, while I am a farmer’s daughter from a suburb of Paris, and my hair looks like dirty straw.
Therefore, I kept my love buried deep within my bosom, precious to me as a pearl from a Scottish lake. I treasured the times onstage when my character, Flaminia, must dress as a boy for some reason or another, and woos or is wooed by an unknowing Isabella before both women return to their respective male partners.
I joined the company in France, when they came through Paris. I was always getting in trouble for leaving the farm and its drudgery to see the spectacles at whichever fair was in season. The plays were my favorite. As I walked back home, I would invent my own stories and act them out, monologuing aloud. Someday, I thought, it would be me on that stage.
When Pierrot and Colombina’s troupe came to town for the Saint-Germain Fair, I was captivated by their shows—and by Isabella. Every gesture of her hands was elegant. Her blushes made my blood race like the Seine. Her laugh caused entire audiences to swoon. The crude wooden stage to me seemed like a pedestal of marble made to show off her art. I visited the fair as often as I could, and even sold my best bonnet for admittance money. Soon, the actors recognized me as that silly farmgirl who was always talking to them after shows, and even humored me when I recounted my favorite parts of the day’s performance, imitating each actor in turn. Isabella’s kindness both shocked and delighted me, for even though she was clearly educated, she never treated me as less than a dear friend.
My entry into their ranks I must credit to Cupid, for partway through the fair their then-Flaminia ran off with an opera star. Colombina and Pierrot agreed to give me a chance at filling in, and were impressed with how easily and eagerly I improvised. No more farmwork for me!
After the end of the Saint-Germain Fair, we toured all over France. My new colleagues helped me improve my acting and my Italian. In Marseille, clutching Isabella’s hand, I saw the ocean for the first time. From there, we rambled along the coast to our company’s native Italy and began traveling the countryside.
And at last, we were to play in Venice! How many hours had I listened to Isabella recount her tales of the grand floating city? Often as our caravan journeyed between towns, I would lie with my head on her knee and she would regale me with stories of the maze-like alleys and canals, the ornate buildings, the shocking blue of the lagoon. Oh, how I wished I could be there with her at Carnival, running through crowded plazas, hidden behind masks, hand-in-hand with my love. Or I imagined riding with her in a covered gondola, just the two of us, hidden from the eyes of the world.
However, Isabella’s time in Venice had not been entirely happy. Growing up, she had enjoyed a classical education and showed great talent for music and singing, which she hoped she would not have to give up when she was married off to a wealthy man, as was expected for a lady in her station. To her surprise, when she was sixteen, her parents instead announced she would be sent to a convent on a lonely isle. That very night, Isabella ran away with only some pilfered food and jewels to sustain her. She drifted between various theater troupes before finding her home with Pierrot and Colombina in Milan. This visit was her first time back in Venice.
Since we could not bring our wagons to the islands, we had to leave our faithful horses on the mainland and carry as much as we could by water. Once we had filled several boats with ourselves and our boxes of costumes, props, and equipment, we set off for the palazzo of an old friend of Pierrot and Colombina’s.
It was a gloomy day, and yet that only added, in a strange way, to the allure of the city as we approached. It was Gothic, foreboding, thrilling! I gripped Isabella’s arm in my excitement, and she smiled kindly and took my hands in hers.
“Sweet Flaminia,” she said, “how I wish I could see the city of my birth as you do, anew. Truly, even I had forgotten its glory. But mark, dear one, those dark clouds on the horizon. Venice is full of danger, and you must be careful.”
“She is right, Flaminia,” said Colombina, who sat beside her husband. “We must all be careful.” Colombina and Pierrot each had one of their children on their laps, and Colombina pulled her daughter closer as she spoke.
“Fear not!” said Captain Courageous in his character’s voice, brandishing an invisible sword, “for I, Captain Courageous, will let no harm come to any of our company, especially our honored ladies. If a man so much as whistles at any of you, I will challenge him on the spot.”
“What’s this?” called Harlequin from another boat, also using his stage voice. “Is that Captain Courageous making boasts again? For I know him to be a liar and a coward!”
Soon Captain Courageous and Harlequin, despite not having their masks or costumes, were deep in an improvised dialogue, with Captain Courageous making ever more vainglorious claims of his abilities and Harlequin endlessly needling him, and all talk of danger was forgot. By the time we reached the palazzo, Colombina, Isabella, and I were egging the two on, and a crowd of boats had joined our fleet to watch. As we docked, Pierrot called out the name of our troupe and where and when we would be performing to our impromptu audience. An auspicious arrival—or so it seemed.
Pierrot and Colombina had warned us beforehand of the declining fortune of our host and sponsor. Count —– was a widower, and he lived alone with only a few servants. The palazzo was in need of repair, but one could tell it had been glorious in its prime. The Count, a sweet old man whose most prized possession was a portrait of his late wife, was elated to have company, and a feast was served.
After dinner and drinking, we were shown to our rooms. All the company’s children were already in the nursery with Nurse, an older Neapolitan woman. I was to room with Isabella and Vittoria, Lelio’s younger sister who assisted behind the scenes. Like Isabella, Vittoria had been unwillingly destined for a convent before her brother intervened. She delighted in sewing beautiful costumes, and like me, looked up to Isabella and Colombina as goddesses.
There were two beds in our room, and my heart danced as I wondered if I would share one with Isabella. How beautiful she looked in her white night shift, with her hair loosened and cascading down her back!
“Isabella, is this palazzo as big as the one you grew up in?” I asked.
“Ours was even larger,” she said with a smile, “but I am glad to have left it.”
To my great joy, Isabella said Vittoria should get the second bed to herself, since she so often helped Nurse with the children and frequently had at least one babe asleep in her arms. Vittoria looked as pleased with this decision as I felt.
While Vittoria enjoyed her solitary bed, Isabella and I settled into ours. A storm had begun outside, but how heavenly it was to be in a warm bed with my dearest. It was as if we were two doves tucked into a nest. She smiled at me, and I wondered if she felt the same way. I wanted to reach out and touch her cheek, but lost my nerve. Instead, I turned and blew out the candle.
Despite my passionate feelings, I had almost fallen asleep when—over the sound of the storm—I heard a scratching at the window.
“Isabella,” I whispered. “Isabella!”
Both Isabella and Vittoria awoke, and just then, a flash of lightning illuminated the sky. In that brief moment of light, the silhouette of a man appeared at the window, which started to open! All three of us screamed, and I rushed to the window, my only thought to hold it shut lest the man gain entry and menace my companions. But by the time I reached it, the figure was gone. I looked out into the night in vain.
Isabella tore me from the room, and the three of us ran down the hall to Pierrot and Colombina’s room like frightened children running for their parents. We burst in, all talking at once of the terrifying apparition. Pierrot and Harlequin (for he had been there too), leapt from the bed and went to our room to investigate.
The row woke up most of the house, and soon there was a flurry of activity. Pantaloon’s wife and Colombina ran to the nursery to check on the children. Half the men scoured the interior while the other half searched outside. Both investigations were fruitless. Flavio, “my” lover in our skits, returned from the courtyard soaked with rain and looked intently at Vittoria as he swore we would all be safe and that he would spend the entire night on the street under our window if need be.
“Oh, but you will catch cold,” Vittoria cried, and I wondered how I had not noticed their longing for each other before.
No villain was found inside or out, but we were all greatly shaken. Isabella, Vittoria, and I stayed with Colombina, huddled around her in bed like chicks to a hen. Lelio and Flavio slept on mattresses outside our door. Pierrot and Harlequin moved to the room we three women had vacated, a knife at their bedside ready to strike if the man returned. Captain Courageous and Pantaloon slept outside the nursery, while Nurse and Pantaloon’s wife, armed with Harlequin’s prop bat, slept inside of it, guarding the children.
The next morning the skies were blue and bright with no trace of the storm remaining—fortunate, since our shows were to occur out of doors. Although we were still unnerved by the previous night’s events, the cheerfulness of the new day soon convinced us we had little to fear. The Count, who was terribly embarrassed that our first night in his home had been so frightening, told us he would have workers replace the window latch. We all assured him what had transpired was in no way his fault, but I was glad to hear of the improvements.
Our first performance in Venice would not be until late in the afternoon. Seeing how excited the youngest of our company were to see the fabled city, Pierrot and Colombina sent us off to explore while the rest prepared our stage. With Isabella acting as guide, Lelio, his sister Vittoria, Flavio, Captain Courageous, and I departed in a gondola.
Isabella pointed out the most famous landmarks of the city to us, such as the holy Basilica di San Marco and the terrifying Palazzo Ducale, but also the personal landmarks of her youth: the house where so-and-so had lived, the bridge where such-and-such had happened. Her retellings were so vivid that I felt I could see what she described, like the escaped parrot flying off with a stolen apricot and young Isabella herself drenching her new shawl of Burano lace as she rescued a small dog from a canal.
We did not venture near Isabella’s family’s home, and no one mentioned it. Nevertheless, she was recognized. Some called to her happily, proud to know the lovely actress. Others were not so kind. As we glided by in our gondola, I saw two noblewomen scowling at her. They were the sort who called us harlots. Isabella noticed as well, but laughed.
“Let them scowl,” she said lightly. “How could I be any happier than I am, traveling the world with my dearest friends?”
As we toured, I thought of how we must appear to passersby: three young women and three young men. There can be little doubt that most would assume we were three pairs of lovers, with each gentleman claiming a lady. Yet Captain Courageous and Lelio had claimed each other, while I longed in silence for Isabella.
At midday we returned to the palazzo, changed into costumes, and gathered instruments. We broke into two groups of five and paraded around the city, waving the banner of our company to entice an audience for the day’s performance.
I was with Pierrot, Flavio, Pantaloon, and Dr. Breakbones. Pierrot led us while playing the lute, and we all sang. If we found an open area, we would stop and do a quick performance, with Pantaloon and Dr. Breakbones arguing about how their children (myself and Flavio) must certainly never marry, and Flavio and I sneaking off behind their backs to woo. Both fathers would pause their bickering to wonder where we had gone off to, but then Pierrot would distract them with a song while crying with guilt at his own trickery.
Our antics were generally well received and we were in high spirits, but we returned to the palazzo to find disaster! During the other group’s tour of the city, poor Captain Courageous had eaten a bad meat pie, and was now sick to his stomach.
I, of course, was worried and sad for my friend, but God forgive me, I also felt a fluttering of opportunity, much as I had when my predecessor had eloped.
Pierrot and Colombina were deep in discussion, revising our planned set of scenarios, when I spoke up.
“Let me play Captain Courageous.”
For there was nothing I loved more onstage than dressing up as a man, freely wearing pants, playacting all the masculine gestures, and wooing a woman. Even though Captain Courageous was a buffoon, how I would relish bragging of my strength with sword in hand.
“I could do it,” I argued, before Pierrot and Colombina could say anything. “You know how good I am onstage when Flaminia dresses as a boy, and besides, it is in a mask!”
“But who then would play Flaminia?” asked Harlequin.
“Let Vittoria do it,” I said.
Vittoria looked startled, but hopeful.
“Yes, Vittoria could do it,” Flavio insisted.
Colombina and Pierrot had me demonstrate Captain Courageous’s walk, mannerisms, and voice, and our usual Captain Courageous gave his blessing from his sickbed. It was settled! Vittoria agreed to be Flaminia for the evening, and she and Pantaloon’s wife hurriedly altered one of my boy costumes into a passable military outfit for me to take on Captain Courageous.
“How brave you are, Flaminia,” cried Isabella. “I cannot wait to see your performance. How dashing you will be! Perhaps Isabella will pick Captain Courageous over Lelio this time.”
I felt like my heart would burst with happiness.
Our performance was held in a public square on a raised wooden stage with a cloth backdrop. A respectably-sized crowd had arrived. I rarely felt nervous before performing, but this was an extraordinary occasion: it was our first show in Venice, and I was doing an entirely new role. The long-nosed mask was heavy and unfamiliar on my face. When I went out, would the crowd be able to tell that I was a woman, and would they jeer about it? I watched with trepidation as Colombina and Harlequin danced the opening number to Pierrot’s accompaniment.
Once I was on stage, however, all doubts vanished.
In our first scenario with Captain Courageous, Lelio left on an errand, and seeing his opportunity, Harlequin started to woo an uninterested Isabella with his lute. Then I—Captain Courageous—arrived and also made advances towards Isabella, boasting of questionable feats. Behind the mask, I felt invincible as I ad-libbed my victories. I had killed two hundred pirates at sea in a single battle, with a sword in each hand and one between my teeth! I had climbed the Alps to save a Tunisian princess from Genoan scoundrels! I had boarded a Turkish ship under cover of night and stolen an emerald as large as a man’s head! Isabella, of course, stage whispered clever remarks on these claims to the audience.
Meanwhile, Harlequin doggedly continued to play his instrument. Refusing to be outdone, I grabbed a guitar of my own and started playing terribly, but enthusiastically. My oblivious glee brought the audience over a smidge to my side, and Isabella pretended to enjoy my music more. This annoyed Harlequin, and soon we had traded our instruments for weapons (a sword for me, a bat for him) and were threatening each other.
As we verbally parried, I made it obvious that Captain Courageous was terrified of an actual fight and was bloviating as a stalling tactic. Just as Harlequin was about to attack me regardless, Lelio returned from his errand.
“What is this?” he cried. “A duel between my valet and the braggart captain? And so near my delicate Isabella?”
Harlequin was quick to lie. “Master, this uncouth captain threatened your lady love, and I rushed to defend her honor!”
Lelio unsheathed his own sword and challenged me. I pretended to hear a far-off cry for help, made excuses that my heroism was needed elsewhere, and started to run offstage—only to feel a tug on my sleeve. Isabella held out my discarded guitar. I accepted it with a deep bow, kissed her hand, and then darted out of sight to much applause.
“You were wonderful,” whispered Vittoria as I joined her and the others behind the backdrop.
I got a chance to rest during the next scene, which involved Isabella, Lelio, Doctor Breakbones, and Colombina. Doing my best to stay out of view, I nonetheless angled myself so I could see glimpses of Isabella. I was so focused on her that I almost missed a movement from a nearby rooftop. It looked like a figure in black had stepped behind a corner. I was alarmed, recalling the figure at the window, but told myself it was probably just some curious onlooker investigating what all the noise was about.
There was no time to dwell too much on it; I had to pay attention for my next cue.
As our performance came to an end with our final dances, the sun was low in the sky. By the time we had finished packing up and chatting with admirers, it was almost dark. I felt no tiredness, though, as I was still energized with excitement from my performance, refusing to even remove the Captain’s mask. Isabella had embraced me after one of our scenes together, and told me she had never had to try so hard not to break character and laugh onstage.
We were getting ready to depart for the palazzo when a voice rang out.
Across a narrow canal was an old woman.
“Why, it is Dina, my family’s housekeeper,” Isabella told me. She broke away from the group to hurry towards her old servant. “Dina, how are you? How is my mother? How is Pampinea, her maid?”
“Isabella!” another voice called out. I looked and saw a young woman, disheveled and frantic, running towards us. “Isabella, danger!”
But no sooner had the young woman said this than two men leapt from behind a corner and pulled Isabella into an alley!
“Flaminia!” she cried.
The snatching happened so quickly that my mind could hardly comprehend it. Still, I ran after her immediately, grateful that I was wearing trousers instead of my usual skirts.
I could hear shouts behind me from our company, but I focused solely on catching up to Isabella and the brigands who had taken her. We were running through a maze of alleys and stone passageways, and every time I spotted her green dress and their black outfits, they disappeared behind another corner.
Suddenly I came to the edge of a canal, where a boat was tied up. No one was around, I was quite lost, and I had no idea where the kidnappers had gone. But then I heard rough voices and footsteps, and I knew they were approaching. I leapt into the boat and hid under a tarp, thinking that perhaps I could jump out and take them by surprise as they passed by.
They were coming closer, the muffled cries of my dear Isabella rending my heart. I was just about to leap out when another voice, coming in another direction, called out, “There you are. Hurry, get her in the boat.”
That meant there were at least three men. I had hoped that by startling the two men holding Isabella, I could grab her and flee, but two against three made the situation much more dangerous. I had my blunted prop sword, but I didn’t know what weapons they carried. Before I could come to a decision, the men and their poor captive were boarding the very boat in which I hid. It was too late to do anything but lay still under the tarp and pray I was not found.
The boat was soon moving. I could hear Isabella kicking and trying to scream. One of the men ordered the others to tie her up. I almost jumped out then in a rage, but then another said, “Be careful with her. Remember, she is our master’s daughter. Isabella, it is us, your father’s valets and groom. We will not hurt you.”
“To think,” another said, “that he wants her in that convent so badly he’s willing to resort to this.”
These were her father’s men? Taking her to a convent? Why couldn’t her father let her be? I resolved to stay put until we reached our destination.
We rode in the boat for a long, long time. I cannot say how long, as my focus was solely on being as still and quiet as possible.
“There it is,” one of the men said at last. “Gloomy place.”
The boat was docked, and I waited until the footsteps of the men and Isabella receded far into the distance. Then quietly, cautiously, I crept out from under the tarp.
What a dreary landscape met my eyes! In the moonlight, I could see we were at a small island quite overrun with scraggly trees casting hideous silhouettes. There was only one building, and it hardly looked like an abbey. It was a squat, wide tower of crumbling stone, imposing and completely dark but for one tiny window on the ground floor.
Gathering my courage and my sword, I hurried toward the tower. Below the small window, I paused and listened.
“This isn’t a convent,” one of the men who had kidnapped Isabella was saying. “What is this?”
“Silence,” another man’s booming voice ordered. “She is my daughter, and how I dispose of her is my business. Keep quiet, and there is good money in it for you. Defy me, and I will have you whipped. Now, put her on the altar.”
I looked through the window.
The ground floor of the tower was but one room, lined with lit torches. Against the far wall, a staircase rose. The walls themselves were marked with strange symbols, the likes of which I had never seen. Seated in a wooden chair was a middle-aged noblewoman, sobbing quite pitifully. Standing before a raised stone platform was an elderly nobleman of terrible countenance. On the other side of the platform stood the three men holding Isabella. Her wrists were tied, and a mantle bound around her head stopped her mouth.
“But what is to happen to her?” asked one of the men.
“I bring her here to her marriage,” the nobleman proclaimed, “and if you knew the power of her bridegroom, you would not dare question me. You know that many years ago, my fortunes declined sharply when a fleet of ships were lost at sea. It was then I came to this cursed isle and promised my daughter Isabella to the sea spirit who dwells here in return for better fortune. Indeed, my wealth then increased. But the night before the wedding, this slattern ran away. More ships were lost and my lands withered! In desperation I offered up my bastard child, my wife’s maid, to the spirit, but he would not have her. Now, after years of living in disgrace as an actress, at last this fool has returned to Venice. The sea spirit shall finally have her, and my fortunes shall be restored!”
I could stand to hear no more from this greedy, diabolical man. With more anger than planning, I rushed into the room, mask still on and prop sword held high.
“Demon!” I called, “release her!”
Everyone looked at me in astonishment.
“Who is this?” asked Isabella’s father.
“It is an actor from your daughter’s troupe,” said one of the men.
“You’re wrong!” I declared, making my voice sound as confident as possible. “I am no mere actor. How do you think I got here so quickly? I flew in my magical chariot.” With my sword, I gestured to the men holding Isabella. “If you three know what is good for you, you will release her at once. For I am a true spirit, much stronger than whatever this sorry excuse for a father is aligned with.”
Isabella motioned desperately to the men to free her mouth, and one acquiesced.
“Though you wrong me, listen to him,” she begged the men, clasping her bound hands to her breast. “He is too powerful a creature for you to vex. When we were in France, he burned an entire village’s fruit trees to the ground just by blinking. Their only crime was to mock me on the stage. Imagine what he will do to you for stealing me. For you see, he considers us—” She broke off for a moment, sending an anguished, heartrending glance in my direction. “—married!”
Never had I been so grateful for a mask, for I was sure the surprise would show on my face otherwise. Nonetheless, I built off her brilliant suggestion.
“Yes, she is my wife,” I said proudly. “I wed her in a secret ceremony at the top of Monte Bianco. Our vows were written in the blood of a phoenix.”
The men were transfixed, their grip on her slackening.
“It’s true,” Isabella said, tears streaming down her cheeks. “If you do not let me go, you sentence me not only to be the bride of a sea monster…but to commit the sin of bigamy!”
With that, she executed a flawless swoon, and the men scrambled to catch her.
“Lies!” yelled Isabella’s father. “Lies and nonsense! I doubt this loudmouth youth has any magic at all.”
“You doubt me?” I cried. “I doubt your stories of this sea spirit. Perhaps you were drunk, and actually promised your daughter to a fish.”
Isabella’s father became florid with rage. “It is real, and dangerous! My wife can attest! She saw the creature when I offered up her maid Pampinea as substitute. Tell them!”
Here he gestured to the sobbing woman, but she was distraught beyond reason.
“Please spare her,” she cried—whether to her husband or me I could not tell. “Please spare my daughter!”
Isabella’s mother fell from the chair to her knees, her black skirts spread around her like a pit of despair.
“Look how you have upset my poor mother-in-law,” I scolded. “Men, if you doubt me, go outside and see for yourself that there is no boat I could have arrived in. Who will you trust? This cruel man, or me?” (Here, I did a neat flourish with my sword.)
The men stood thunderstruck for a moment, and then one took it upon himself to start undoing Isabella’s bonds, and the others joined in. My heart soared. Freed, Isabella ran into my arms, and I held her as tightly to my bound bosom as I could.
“You idiots!” cried her father. “You will doom us all!”
“Don’t you harm them.”
It was the voice of Pierrot! Our company and the young woman who had cried out to warn Isabella rushed into the room.
“We are not too late!” exclaimed the young woman.
“Pampinea!” Isabella cried.
“Ah, the rest of our troupe has arrived,” I said. “Because they are not magic, like me, they could not fly here.”
I hoped my colleagues would not question this, but before anyone could, there was a sound like the wailing of a storm, and heavy footsteps descended the steps of the tower.
“It comes to claim its bride!” exclaimed Isabella’s father triumphantly.
I can hardly relate what it was that came down those stairs. It was in the shape of a man, but oh—his skin! It was of scales, and the color of a drowned corpse. Along his arms were sapphire fins with barbed points. More alarmingly, he was naked, save for a crown of seashells from which seaweed hung. When he reached the last stair, he gazed ominously at those of us gathered. Terror struck my heart, and yet I raised my sword again as Isabella hid her face against my neck.
Isabella’s father dropped to his knees. “Honored master,” he said, “powerful spirit who holds my fortunes in his hand. Look, I have at last brought you what I promised: your bride, my daughter Isabella.”
The sea spirit focused his gaze on the woman in my arms.
“My wife is not for the taking,” I said firmly.
“Your wife?” the creature hissed, displaying its teeth of sea urchin spines.
“Yes, my wife,” I attested. “This untrustworthy man would have you play cuckold, trying to marry you to a woman already wed.”
The creature glared at Isabella’s father, rage in its eyes.
“Fool!” it growled. “You have failed yet again to bring me what you promised, and not only that, you have brought a crowd of strangers to my sacred isle. I rue the day I struck a deal with you.”
“I apologize for the unexpected guests, noble spirit,” I said graciously, bowing. “With your permission, myself, my wife, and our friends will leave at once.”
To my surprise, the creature nodded. “Go. Go all of you, and never return! As for this useless acolyte,” he said, gesturing to Isabella’s father, “I take his life in revenge!”
Isabella’s father cried out, but it was too late. With superhuman speed, the creature pounced and dragged him from the tower and into the sea.
There was a touching reunion between Isabella and her mother, and then we boarded our makeshift fleet to return to Venice. During this journey, much was explained by Pampinea, the maid who had been revealed to be Isabella’s half-sister. When Pampinea was but twelve years old, her mother, a laundress, died, and she was left to her nobleman father. The immoral and selfish man wanted nothing to do with his illegitimate child, but gave her to his wife as a maid, meaning to mock her with a constant reminder of his infidelity. Instead, Isabella’s mother came to love her step-daughter.
On the morning of our performance, Pampinea overheard her father’s plans to have his men try once again to kidnap Isabella, after they had failed to bring her from the Duke’s palazzo. Having seen the sea spirit herself when she had been offered to the creature, Pampinea begged him to relent. Her father was furious and locked her in a room, telling his wife that if she said a word to anyone, he would kill Pampinea after disposing of their daughter.
Pampinea, however, refused to give up. Summoning all of her courage, she broke a window, climbed down the wall, and raced to our performance space, arriving just a moment too late. After I ran off in pursuit of Isabella, she told the rest of our troupe of her father’s insidious plan and led them to the island.
“Oh, brave sister!” cried Isabella. “I never even knew until today you were my sister, and yet you risked all for me! And Flaminia! How brave and clever you were!”
“And now,” sighed Isabella’s mother, “though it might be a sin to rejoice at the death of my husband, I at last know my daughter and my step-daughter are safe from his schemes.”
She clasped both ladies in her arms, and I realized then that Isabella could remain in Venice with her mother and newfound sister. As happy as I was for the three women, grief struck my heart like an arrow from Despair itself.
The most difficult acting performance of my life took place that night, when I forced myself to look glad during our celebratory dinner, which I feared marked the beginning of the end of my companionship with Isabella. Perhaps she would move into her family’s palazzo immediately, rather than continue to room with us. She loved acting, so I hoped she would not quit our shows while we remained in Venice, but after that? How I longed for a mask! Although I felt I was giving a good show, Isabella took my arm and led me into a hallway.
“My cunning hero, what is the matter?” she asked.
“Oh, Isabella,” I said, my voice breaking, “It is right and proper that you are reunited with your mother and sister, but I grieve, for surely now you will stay in Venice.”
Then, to my shock and joy, the arrow launched by Despair was struck aside by one from Cupid, for Isabella stopped my mouth with a kiss.
“Beloved Flaminia,” she said, “will you quit me so soon after declaring me your wife? I am of course elated to be reunited with my mother and sister, but how could I leave you? If you will have me, I will be yours forever.”
Sometime later we had our own ceremony as we traveled between cities, with Pierrot as officiant and the rest of the company as attendants and witnesses. We were passing through a lonely little valley at the time, but our hearts felt higher than the Alps.