The Village of Stresa, Lake Maggiore, Italy,
September 7, 1960
Domenico de Grazia was a gentleman of the old school, a refined and courtly patrician, a man of breeding, poised and self-assured. Many of the simpler folk, out of respect for his lineage and his impeccable bearing, still spoke of him as il conte, the count, although the nobility had been abolished more than fifteen years before. And some took their hats off when he passed, but this was a practice he gently discouraged.
Despite his reputation, Domenico knew himself to be a shy man, uncomfortable with intimacy and easily embarrassed. At this moment he was finding it impossibly hard to make the proposal that had brought him to the modest apartment of Franco and Emma Ungaretti. For half an hour he had sat in their living room making stilted small talk, while they plainly wondered, with many glances between them, what had brought him there. Emma was his niece, his brother Cosimo’s only child. Franco was her husband, whom Domenico employed, out of an admittedly grudging charity, as a part-time gamekeeper on the de Grazia estate.
It was not often that Domenico visited them, although once upon a time, and not so long ago at that, he had doted on Emma. But Franco Ungaretti he could barely force himself to tolerate. Emma was such a pretty, good-natured girl too; to think of the husbands from whom she might have had her choice… but that was neither here nor there.
With his second glass of Amaretto (which he detested) came the resolve he needed. He put down the glass and took a deep breath. “My children,” he said-and immediately regretted the choice of words, given the strange proposition he was about to make-“as you know, my wife has recently suffered a second miscarriage-”
Emma began to murmur something, but Domenico, determined to carry on now that he had gotten started, talked over her. “-and Dr. Luzzatto has told us she can risk no further pregnancies.”
More sympathetic murmurs, from both of them.
“Thank you, please let me finish. As you also know, the de Grazia family has maintained its holdings and its place in the life of our beloved Italy for over six hundred years, from the days of the Dukes of Piedmont.”
“Yes, Uncle,” Emma said.
“Good.” He patted her hand, but quickly drew his own back as if he’d touched a flame. That had been another bad idea. “I am sure you will both agree that there must always be a de Grazia to continue the heritage of our family, and to-and so forth.” He was already losing them. Emma looked confused and Franco was alternating between smirking at what he no doubt considered empty platitudes, and watching a bicycle race on the muted television set in a far corner. The set had been Domenico’s second-anniversary present to them a year earlier.
He decided to skip the middle paragraphs of his prepared speech. “I must have an heir,” he blurted. “In that regard I come to you-”
“But you have an heir, Uncle,” Emma said. “Your daughter. Francesca.”
Emma had many fine traits, but a piercing intelligence was not among them. “Francesca is the dearest of children, the darling of my heart,” Domenico explained kindly, “but I must have a male heir; someone to take my place someday, someone to carry on the name.”
“Oh. But you could adopt someone, couldn’t you?”
“I could, yes, and I’ve given the idea a great deal of thought.”
At this, Franco’s head swiveled from the television. Bored and noncommittal till now, his face suddenly shone with… anticipation? Hope? Did this parasite think Domenico was going to make him his heir? What, adopt him? The mere thought was enough to make Domenico shudder.
Franco Ungaretti had been an Olympic silver medalist, a famous skier of breathtaking speed and daring, and as handsome as a movie star to boot. Il Valangone, the Avalanche, they had called him. But this Avalanche had also been an uneducated lout, the son of a laborer who was the son of a laborer: an ignorant, self-centered womanizer blessed with a native ability to manufacture a smooth, superficial patter that the media had been in love with. Emma, like so many other innocent young girls, had fallen under the spell of his shallow charms, and it had been her everlasting misfortune to be with him the night that he got drunk enough to decide to make an honest woman of her and get married.
Less than three months later he had been struck by an automobile. Several vertebrae in his neck had been crushed, and his sports career-and all the fame and endorsements that came with it-was over. Most athletes, so Domenico understood, put on weight when their athletic careers came to an end. But Franco had lost it. At thirty-three, with his neck now permanently askew, he was a wizened, bitter old man, all sinews and grinding tendons, and the smooth patter was a thing of the past. All that was left from before was the selfish, narrow lout that was, and had always been, the essential Franco Ungaretti. And still, Emma adored him. Love, the old proverb said, was like food or music; there was no accounting for taste.
“But adoption is of no interest to me,” Domenico continued. “What good is an heir without the splendid genes of our family? It isn’t only the de Grazia name that must go on, but the good de Grazia blood that runs through our veins and has made us what we are.”
“Good blood,” Franco echoed, looking interested. “That’s very important.” Beef-brained he might be, but there was a streak of cunning in him; even if he didn’t know what was going on, he could smell advantage to himself at five kilometers. Well, he was right enough about that.
“Therefore,” Domenico said, “I have a proposition to make to you.” This was the part that he had rehearsed again and again, but now he rushed clumsily through it, addressing neither of them in particular, with his eyes fixed on the coffee table. “I would like Emma’s consent, with Franco’s approval, of course, to be the bearer of my child”-his face was burning-“by means of a process-very impersonal, very proper, performed by a qualified physician-of… of artificial insemination. This would, it goes without saying, involve no contact between us. I would, of course, expect to repay you-both of you-generously-for the inconvenience it would cause.”
Emma, shocked, covered her mouth and stared at him. Franco’s eyes narrowed. The congealed gears of his mind were beginning to move, however slushily.
“The child would be brought up as my own, my own and Stefania’s,” Domenico said hurriedly, speaking to Emma. “No one but Stefania and I and the two of you would know the truth.”
“Uncle! I, I-” She was blushing furiously.
“How would that work?” Franco asked. “That no one would ever know the truth?”
How perfectly Domenico understood Franco’s mind, so true to its owner’s class. If there was profit in it, he was interested, but first he needed assurance that his own cherished manhood-his most prized possession-would suffer no slurs. Domenico was ready with his answers. “Emma would go to a small village up in the mountains.
Gignese, a pleasant place with a good climate. I have contacts there, and Dr. Luzzatto would always be within easy reach. She would have a fine villa and be cared for in luxury, anything she wished. A maid, a cook. Franco, you could go with her. A nice vacation, why not? Only after the baby was born would she return to Stresa. People would be told that she had become ill with tuberculosis and had gone to a sanatorium in Switzerland. No one would know, I promise you.”
“That’s all very fine,” Franco said. “But what about your wife, what about Stefania? Suddenly, without a pregnancy, she has a baby? How could that be explained?”
“That will present no problem. No one knows about my wife’s latest
…” He faltered. Answering this oaf’s rude questions about the most intimate details of his life took more willpower than he’d anticipated, but what choice did he have? “… about her latest miscarriage,” he continued. “However, everyone-the family, our friends, the servants-knows about the first one. So, like Emma, Stefania will go away for a while. It will be explained that, in order to insure against a recurrence of her difficulties, she has gone to a maternity rest home near Venice, where she can be professionally cared for at all times while she awaits the arrival of her baby. When she returns home, she will have the infant with her.”
Franco shrugged his approval. “And what about my job? If I went with Emma to Gignese.”
“Naturally, you would be given a leave with full pay.” That, Domenico thought, would be no hardship to himself. With Franco not acting as gamekeeper, he expected a considerable reduction in poaching, not that it mattered one way or the other. The animals on the de Grazia lands had never been a source of income. There had been no gamekeeper before Franco, and there would be none after, unless, God forbid, another girl in the family brought home a husband equally worthless.
“In addition, I would hope you would indulge me by accepting a gift of, say, ten thousand dollars-American dollars-as a small token of my gratitude, my sincere gratitude, to both of you.”
Franco darted a quick look at Emma, who responded with an uncertain shake of her head. But Domenico could see that she was thinking about it.
“Also,” he added silkily, “I couldn’t help but notice that your Lancia is showing its age, Franco. I was thinking it would be a pleasure to see you with a new one, perhaps a larger model?” The Lancia, too, had been his gift: a wedding present.
He was ashamed of himself for dealing so baldly with Franco Ungaretti instead of with his own niece. It should have been Emma’s decision to make. Indulging Franco’s puerile cravings should have had nothing to do with it. But he had to have a “yes”; there were no other options. And he knew his chances were best with Franco.
Franco shrugged. His animal instincts sensed a shift in the balance of power. “A Lancia? I don’t know.” He studied his extended left foot. “It’s a nice car, I suppose. But a Ferrari… now there’s an automobile for you.”
Domenico held in his anger. This animal was haggling over the use of his wife’s body. Not as a question of principle, of “yes” or “no,” but of price.
“A Ferrari,” he said through compressed lips. “Yes, all right, that would also be possible.”
“What if she has a miscarriage? What if the child is a girl?”
Domenico shivered. On their own, his fingers traced the sign of the cross. These things must not, would not, happen. “I would still consider that you had fulfilled your part of the bargain. What do you say?”
“Uncle-” Emma said, and Domenico held his breath. “What does Aunt Stefania… how does Aunt Stefania…” She bit her lip and was silent.
She had hit on a sore point, and Domenico was honest, if halting, about it. “Your aunt is not entirely… comfortable with the arrangement. Naturally enough, she would prefer that it not be necessary. But she understands the need. She will love the child as her own, you should have no fear on that score. And…,” he hesitated, hoping he was still telling the truth, “… and she will love you none the less for it.”
“I see.” Emma didn’t look much comforted.
Franco patted her shoulder. “Give us time to think it over,” he said. “We’ll talk about it and let you know our decision tomorrow.” He gave Emma a remnant of the old, oily smile. “All right, sweetheart?”
Emma nodded, looking at neither of them.
Domenico reached for his cane and stood up. Franco had made up his mind. He would wheedle or browbeat her into it. It was as good as done.
“I’ll see myself out,” he said, unable to meet Emma’s eyes.
Every Thursday afternoon without exception, throughout the long winter, Domenico would have Clemente drive him up the mountain to Gignese for his two o’clock visit with the Ungarettis to assure himself that things were well. At first these visits were awkward. They would sit stiffly in the beautifully furnished parlor, the three of them, over china cups of tea or coffee, and comment on the unusually fine weather, or the health-giving mountain air, or the lovely view from the windows. As for the subject on everyone’s mind, the subject of Emma’s pregnancy, Domenico would scrupulously avoid it. (Stefania wasn’t the only one “not entirely comfortable” with the situation.) And so it would hang between them like an immovable, impenetrable curtain around which they were forced to talk.