Read by Katy Darby
Rome, March, 1755
When I am Mr Hope’s wife, men will ask me, how did Rome look? I will say she burns, and her women are even more beautiful. Unpeeled, their skin glows with the fire of the torches hung from the cypress trees. I glimpse them from the window glass of Mr Adam’s coach as we pelter along the ridge above Rome, the mistresses among cypress groves in the almost dusk.
‘Where is it, the place we go?’ I enquire, turning from the window glass. It is uncomfortable and jolting in Mr Adam’s coach; the more so because I have to sit beside Mr Hope and his incessant hands.
‘The Pincio,’ Mr Adam replies. But I know that. I know we go to the Pincio, but what place is it that burns so brightly torch-smoke hangs bilious over Rome and men are in their sleeves and women in donkey-masks?
‘Which is why we are in his coach, not mine,’ Mr Hope murmurs in my ear. His breath stinks of the kipper we ate for supper. ‘Mr Adam intends to be a famous architect, Miss Dunbar.’
‘...and all the ladies will be in undress,’ Mr Adam says, regarding my aunt Mrs Wright sat opposite me and in the narrow coach-cabin he tugs the wrap she has tightly wound around her shoulders. Mrs Wright’s wide mouth laughs and she raps Mr Adam on his hand as if she toys with him.
‘Miss Dunbar may go in undress,’ she says, turning to me. ‘But my lungs will never bear the night air! I will be dead in a second,’ she says and she pulls at my petticoat, to make me sit back.
‘Last week,’ Mr Hope says, while his fingers stray, ‘the Cardinal had his mistress dressed as a donkey. She brayed at every fool on the hill.’ He is unpinning the bands at my neck, suggesting I remove my fichu.
I am no donkey, I think, or fool. ‘Mr Hope,’ I remind him, stretching up, out of his grasp. ‘We came to regard the view.’ I lean forward to make as if I observe it out of the window glass; pull down the glass in the rattling coach so as to be out of Mr Hope’s way.
‘There is no view from here, Miss Dunbar,’ Mr Adam says. I am being led astray. I know there must be a view. We are on a ridge high above Rome. Through the torch smoke are domes, crucifixes, towers, all ablaze, golden in the melting dusk.
‘But is that not St Peter’s?’ asks my aunt Mrs Wright again. My aunt, sat opposite me is pointing at the flight of steps we pass, the shadow of a triumphal arch, asking Mr Hope if it is the basilica of St Peter.
‘No, the Medici villa,’ Mr Adam corrects her, gesturing into the canopy.
Abruptly Mr Hope’s hand is removed. My skirt is smoothed. Beside me Mr Hope is removing his coat, and Mr Adam. Mr Adam pulls his arms out of his embroidered red coat sleeves; the white linen of his shirt contrasting sharply against the red of his waistcoat. He takes his coat and lays it on his lap.
My aunt is unconcerned. She is tapping her fan on Mr Adam’s wrist asking him how she will make money buying antiquities and asking if she may remove them at will. Mr Adam encourages her. He directs the coach to pull up and a sudden rush of air accompanies the opening of the door whilst we are still in motion. The smell of burning forest and pig. The torches hung from the trees all around discharge a fierce, pungent heat, of burning pork fat disappearing fast into midnight blue. We stand at the edge of the road surrounded by raucous shrieks, and on the curl of the tinged air come snatches of pipes. Mr Adam has his boy lift the lid to his coach box. A heavy lid with a stiff lock. Out comes a chisel and a mallet and the boy brings it to him.
We follow Mr Adam, not far, into the darkening grove of cypress trees, and there, on the path, is the indentation of a tomb. Stumps describing an entrance. Two steps in, a clear stream of water, and lying over it, a thousand-year face, features blurred in the creamiest of stone. Eyes that yawn. Mr Adam rolls up his shirt sleeves. Places the chisel at the sarcophagus’s neck. He stands astride the shaft. I see his muscles swell; tense in their attack. He prises, with the coach boy’s help, its carved edge. The boy’s plump fingers in the cracks Mr Adam cannot cleave, until the head is released from the woven acanthus and placed in my aunt’s arms.
The boy protecting it, wrapping it in oil-cloth. She, cradling it like a baby, rocking it.
‘Salome,’ Mr Adam is calling her. It is only a portion, a fragment. A face awoken from the undergrowth. Mr Hope is beside me. He slips his arm around my waist.
‘You are married Mr Hope. You have two wives,’ I remind him into his wig. His smile in return is uneven.
‘The first is dead, the second chasing flora in the Indies with a Colonel Monson,’ he retorts. In the growing dusk his face collapses. He squeezes me tighter and seems to shrink into the darkness. ‘I will marry you, Miss Dunbar,’ Mr Hope declares as if I already resist him. ‘I will marry you,’ he tells my turned neck.
Mr Adam sees me shiver.
‘My coat!’ he orders his boy, ‘and a torch,’ he commands, and the boy, like a spark, darts rapidly through the trees in the direction of Mr Adam’s coach. We watch his back, curved with the effort of carrying Mrs Wright’s head.
‘Careful!’ Mrs Wright calls. I am not sure loud enough. The boy only seems to run faster. And then he is back, with an ember snaking in the woods, held aloft and jerking. The coat he gives to Mr Adam. The torch he clutches. I hesitate. Mr Adam holds out his coat for me to enter. Holds it by the shoulders and lets it hang, the red silk lining radiant in the torch-heat. I lift my hair and slip inside. My arms captured in Mr Adam’s too-long sleeves. The silk is cold. There is no residue of his body-heat. The cuffs dandle. Mr Adam stands close to me to button me up, catching my shiver and stilling it. To press each button into its embroidered incision, Mr Adam bends into me in his struggle with disc and thread. I see him pinch his lower lip, an impression of incisors on a swelling fissure, quickly subsiding. He pulls up the collar around my neck and rolls the cuffs to my wrist. Takes my upper arms and squeezes them.
Then he pulls me. He takes me by the hand and pulls me. Mrs Wright too, and Mr Hope. They take us by our hands and run us into the catacomb, downwards, so we run faster. Mrs Wright could object, I think. But she is screaming. Screaming with delight and the pretence of reluctant feet, but not so dragging she is left behind. The pipe-music comes louder. It comes not from the cypress trees, I realise, but from further within the tomb, where there are bodies too, laughing; masked and fleeting. The boy veers. Cast in darkness, a beaded man somersaults. Right up close, bells sing in a circle on his ankles. There is a leg, illuminated. A hand outstretched, its flexed palm grinds into my face. It smells, this hand, of sweat and men and flesh.
A coin is thrown. It is not my coin. The boy knows where he is headed. He is sure footed with Mr Adam’s torch. I feel the earth beneath my slipper, a gravelled incline. The dead, I presume, line the walls. Mr Adam’s hand holding mine slips in its sweat and is lost. Mr Hope’s clasps me tighter. I look for Mrs Wright in the utter, terrifying, darkness but I cannot see her. All I can see is the flame moving away from me. A burletto dances past; a donkey. The donkey, I see in silhouette, is being fed an apple by her Cardinal. I hear the bray.
The hand clasping mine entwines his fingers in my fingers and there is no Mrs Wright. My thighs press against a stylobate. My palms resist, cupping frozen stone. It crumbles as I am pushed against it. My back arching on the column’s fluted shaft. It is Mr Hope. I can smell his facepaint, the sick scent of fish. His teeth are on my jaw, nipping my skin. He takes advantage of the dark, I think but I am not bred to displease. I moan. I think it a gesture of resistance but he hears compliance. I arch my neck, throw back my chin to remove my jaw from his teeth and he sighs as he sinks against me, sinks lower into my breasts. I feel him, bone hard and skinny against me. I know what is coming and I do not like it. I do not want a torch to illuminate this struggle of mine. It would implicate me. But I do not want Mr Hope.
I heave upwards, force him off. I am strong. Possibly I am stronger than him, but I must not cause offence. He is a wealthy man. I laugh him off. Say, ‘Come, Mr Hope, we must find Mr Adam.’ I keep hold of his hand and pull him away but he pulls me, again, more forcefully. This time I have no choice. His lips are on mine, his hand up my skirts, between my legs. His fingertips drag against the flesh of my upper thigh. ‘I will marry you,’ he says. Not a proposal, but a declaration of intent. I look for Mr Adam. Now I am pushed against dirt, crumbs of it in my hair. Mr Hope trembles with the exertion. I feel through my fists clutching the stiff coat-material on his back his effort, the release of his frustration, the tearing of my skin as he quivers to say my name.
‘Miss Dunbar,’ he stutters. ‘Oh! Miss Dunbar!’ My hand slips under his wig onto his hot, prickly skull as if to calm him. As if to reassure him, I stroke him. He breathes onto my neck. My neck, encased in Mr Adam’s coat. Hot breath coming more steadily now. I worry a torch will come. I worry a donkey will bray at us and bring the crowds and I will be ruined. I worry Mr Adam will know.
I stroke Mr Hope’s cheek. Laugh again at him, gaily. Pat him on the shoulder to make him move, make him get off me. I am glad it is dark and I do not have to see his ridiculous fumbling, pretend somehow to be tender as Mr Hope blunders with his breeches. I need to blow my nose, wipe my eyes. I use the cuff of Mr Adam’s coat. Wipe my eyes again from the tears that are streaming from them. And again.
The wool is soft, and it is this that I will remember, when men ask me in London how did Rome feel? Soft as the red wool that Batoni paints men in, I will say. As red as the fire in my groin when Rome burns.
And when we are out of the blackness and into Pincio, amongst the sculptures and the mistresses, Mr Adam ahead of me is solicitous.
He asks, ‘Did I like the catacomb?’
And I say, 'Yes.'
(c) Leonie Milliner, 2017
Leonie Milliner lives in London. Credits include Liars’ League, Between the Lines, Tube Flash and National Flash Fiction Day. “A Night at the Pincio” is an extract from her novel-in-progress, In Pursuit of Fortune, which begins in Rome in 1755.
Katy Darby won the Ronny Schwartz scholarship to the Oxford School of Drama and has appeared in over 30 productions in Oxford, Edinburgh and London. She’s directed several plays, including Time Out Critic's Choice comedy Dancing Bears, and prefers to lurk behind the scenes but sometimes steps into the limelight.