The Symbol by Peter Fratesi

EXTRACT FOR
The Symbol

(Peter Fratesi)


The Symbol

Prologue

 

Alex Falding had an interesting viewpoint on loss. “Loss is a part of life, and we are urged by others to get over it,” he would say. “But do we really get over losing someone or simply get older with it?” He had a good reason to ask the question. His friend had been gone for many years now, yet the memories of him and his tragic situation were still fresh and vivid, as if they happened just yesterday.

His friendship with John Polidori began when they worked together as physicians in London in the early 1800s. Later, as profound disturbances unfolded in Polidori’s life, Falding became his psychiatrist, as well. He didn’t know if this was the most professional thing to have done, but he did know it was the right thing to have done.

He was now long retired from full-time practice, but his son, Jonathon, carried on the good work through his own practice as a psychiatrist in London. The two had become quite close since the death of Jonathon’s mother years ago. 

Falding observed each anniversary of the loss of his friend by proposing a solitary toast to him in his library and offering a few thoughtful words. However, it was now the twentieth anniversary, and he had thought it fitting to hold a special ceremony. He had invited two of Polidori’s closest friends from the distant past to have a dinner together. The two had gratefully accepted the invitation for that evening.

Falding went into his library that afternoon and unlocked a hidden drawer in his time-worn oak desk. He carefully removed a book wrapped in a yellowed, tattered newspaper. It was his old friend’s journal. He had acquired the journal many years ago, hoping to preserve some part of his friend in his life. He had read and reread his writings over the years, trying to understand this complex man and what had happened to him. Falding never ceased reflecting upon his memories and poring over the case notes of his treatment. His efforts to uncover the truth also drew upon others, particularly now retired Inspector James McLaughlin of Scotland Yard.

Falding unfolded the old newspaper. It was dated October 18, 1816. The front page screamed out:

BRUTAL MURDER IN EAST END OVER NIGHT!

Body mutilated. Police mystified. East Londoners afraid to leave home after dark.

 

Falding nodded knowingly as he read the headline. He had hoped that at tonight’s dinner he would finally be able to reveal the full story of John Polidori. Yet he had his doubts about that. There was much the others did not know about their friend’s strange and bizarre experiences. How could he explain that Polidori’s life had become intertwined with a series of mysterious and horrific crimes in London, over twenty years before? How could he convey that the crimes were of such magnitude that they had prompted one of the most desperate and intriguing investigations in the history of Scotland Yard? How could he possibly explain Polidori’s curious beliefs that there were ominous, supernatural influences in his life and in the London crimes? He bowed his head and lapsed into a stream of disturbing memories. Faces, voices, and shifting feelings swirled up within him from those long-gone days.

 


Part 1

 

“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

—Shakespeare, Hamlet

 

Chapter 1

 

Giovanni (John) Polidori was born in his family’s grand villa on a sprawling country estate just outside of Florence. It was June of 1789, and the forces of revolution were spreading through Italy and France. As it turned out, that summer of turmoil was a fitting time for his birth.

His parents, the Duke and Duchess of Florence, came from a long line of Italian aristocrats. By the time of his only child’s birth, the duke had ruled Florence and Tuscany with an iron fist for some decades, always alert for any democratic stirrings among his subjects.

The marriage of Alessandro and Maria Theresa Polidori had been arranged, in the custom of the day for the upper classes. They had struggled to find love in their relationship, but love eluded them. Maria was no typical aristocratic wife, and that became a source of strife between them. For a long time, they managed to avoid serious arguments, but their antagonism finally broke out into the open in the winter of Giovanni’s second year.

Earlier that winter, a caravan of Roma people had arrived in Florence from Serbia. This nomadic band had been driven westward by the unusually harsh winter that year. In the beginning, Florentines tolerated the people in the tents and wagons on the outskirts of their city. However, that changed after a series of mysterious disturbances and disappearances in and around Florence.

The authorities had been investigating for some time. Crisis finally struck on the night of January 30, 1791. Maria was awakened that night by the clattering of a coach in the cobblestone courtyard of the villa. She looked out her window to see the horses glistening with sweat and the Florentine captain of the guards disembarking hurriedly. She heard the door knocker thud and her husband being roused by the servant. She followed Alessandro down the stairs and listened at the gilded door of the drawing room as the two men talked.

Maria heard the annoyance in the duke’s voice. “This intrusion had better be warranted, Captain.”

“There has been another disappearance, sir...”

“Go on.”

“It’s the bishop, this time! His eminence was out for a stroll alone just before sunset. His aides became concerned when he did not return after dark. They went to search for him and were shocked to discover his cape on the riverbank. We sent out a party to search by torch light but found nothing of him, I regret to say.”

The duke exploded. “It’s the damn Roma again. Since they’ve come here, there has been nothing but trouble!”

“Indeed, sir, the people have been very frightened. The strange lights and sounds at night in the Roman graveyards have been unnerving enough, but the tomb break-ins and the disappearances of townsfolk have pushed them near the edge. They believe the Roma have brought with them a ghoul or vampyre that’s been preying on the people and is up to unholy things in the cemeteries. Now that a man of the cloth may have been taken, I fear their terror may soon transform to riot.”

“Ghouls. Vampyres! Superstitious nonsense,” the duke scoffed. “The Roma are behind this all right, but as thieves and murderers. They vandalize the old tombs for relics to sell on the black market. They murder citizens for their valuables and then get rid of the bodies.”

Still listening at the door, Maria knew the duke’s hatred of crime was second only to his loathing of democracy. At times, she had thought this was a reaction to the skeletons in his family’s closet, the Borgias, who had robbed and murdered for wealth and power centuries before.  

“Captain, I have orders for you and the guards. Move on the Roma at first light. Arrest their leaders and drive out the rest of the rabble.”

“And if they resist, sir? They are accustomed to defending themselves.”

The duke showed no hesitation. “Use whatever means are necessary to rid me of the problem.”

After the captain had gone, Maria joined Alessandro in the drawing room. He stood facing the low embers in the fireplace, his back to his wife. “I suppose you heard it all at the door.”

“I did,” said Maria, the faint, reddish light of the embers accentuating her frown.

The duke sighed and turned to face his wife. “I expect you disapprove.”

“I certainly do,” Maria retorted, her voice thick with anger. “I’ve been following this matter since the beginning. There is no proof that the Roma are behind these crimes. You know that, Alessandro. You are looking for a convenient scapegoat. Someone to charge before the people’s unrest turns to anarchy.”

The duke shot an exasperated look in her direction. “Do you think it is a coincidence that all this mayhem began just after these wretches arrived? They have no visible means of support. Clearly, they’re in the foul business of robbery and murder.”

“Alessandro, I know you take no interest in my efforts to help the poor. This is why you don’t know I have been doling out my own monies to help them. They also make jewelry and sell it at the market.”

“And no doubt the relics they’re thieving from the tombs.”

“Alessandro, grave robberies have happened a long time before the Roma came. You know there may be a gang of such thieves in Florence.”

“But capable of a dozen suspected murders like this? It is unprecedented. And now it’s the bishop, for God’s sake.”

Maria looked down, her lips trembling slightly. “We have all lost a great spiritual leader and a good man who cared about the people.”

“And don’t forget, I’ve lost my political connection with the church.”

Maria looked him directly in the eye. “You must cancel your orders to the captain. These poor people have had enough suffering this winter, and you would send them to God knows where? And because of false charges?”

The duke pulled himself up to his full height and stepped toward her. “You know I cannot rescind the commands. The social order rests upon them.”

“Exactly. This is not about justice,” Maria snapped. She began to stomp out of the room and then stopped and turned to her husband. She pointed an accusing finger. “You know how you hate to admit that the Borgias were your ancestors. Well, you are acting no better.”

 

After the flare-up, the couple’s disagreements quickly worsened. The duchess, like her family before her, was a patron of the arts, and she was a writer of some note herself. She had a rebellious streak in her. She would write poems and short stories satirizing the aristocracy, fortunately published under an assumed name. A confrontation arose when Alessandro discovered that he was one of the buffoon characters in her stories. However, the greatest disagreement arose in the fall of 1795, as the duke prepared to raise taxes on the people— again.

The duke sat in the villa’s library at his ornate rosewood desk, signing the decrees to be given to the tax collectors. He squinted as its polished marble top reflected the early morning sunlight, and he rose to close the curtains.

The library’s doors suddenly flew open. In marched Maria. “Alessandro, you can’t do it,” she protested. “They carry too much burden already.”

“The city’s coffers run low, Maria. What would you have me do?”

“I would have you spend less on your standing army, opulent city buildings, and luxuries for us, while the people suffer and have nothing.”

“Maria, there are two classes in society: the rulers and the ruled. That’s the reality.”

She set her jaw. “Does that give you an excuse to exploit the people? You have the power and they don’t!”

“I wield that power for the good of the state and, ultimately, for them too.”

“You use that power to inflate your own importance and because you blindly carry out the traditions of the nobles. There is much more to nobility than power and wealth, Alessandro.  It is also being an honorable and just person.”

The duke massaged a furrow in his forehead. “Honor and justice!” he mocked. “These are the cries of those who do not have to stand at the castle walls. Do you think if I had no army to meet the Austrians, they would give us justice? And if the people had power, would they use it justly, even for a moment? Look at what happened in France when the mob seized power. They beheaded Louis and his gentle queen. You don’t live in reality, Maria.”

Maria remembered how her husband often woke up tormented by nightmares of the beheadings. He would see the bloody executions over and over again. He would find himself in the shadows of the guillotine, beaten, bound, and spat upon by the rabble, waiting his turn. She knew these dark images only fueled his paranoia toward the people.

She snapped back to the present. “But the people were oppressed and starving for years in France. Had they been given democracy and bread, they would have exalted the king, not executed him.”

“Democracy! Empowering the people! These are more of your fantasies, Maria. They come from the liberal philosophers you read, not from practical experience of the world. Look at some of the causes your family has undertaken. Enabling Galileo’s argument with the church that the sun and not the earth is the center of the universe? Helping artists to decorate the markets with their flowery paintings? Now these are practical matters!”

“I do not call support for Michelangelo’s religious frescos unimportant.”

Alessandro smiled wryly. “Well, I may concede that point. But, if these frescos are important, it’s only because they strengthen the church’s hold on the minds of the people. The church and the nobility stand as one. The power of the ruling class is what has made the world work. Government by the masses would be a political tower of Babel, an exercise in chaos.”

His wife shook her head in protest. “The true meaning of the church does not lie in power but in its spiritual message. It lies in the teachings of love and compassion toward our fellow man, no matter what his situation.”

“Love and compassion will not persuade the people to pay their taxes any more readily.”

Her lips became a thin line as she changed her tack. “Think of Giovanni and what you teach him.” She pointed to the old, elaborately covered books on hunting and war on a shelf behind the duke. “These are not about manliness and the nobles’ honor— only the exercise of power without conscience and compassion! What will he grow up to be?”

The duke’s eyes flashed with anger. “He’ll grow up to be a proper ruler, if you let him! You can’t teach him how to deal with the world with books on fairy tales, Maria, or by teaching him how to write poetry and draw. Poets and artists do not rule the world.”

“No, but they inspire it, Alessandro. They are its heart and soul!” And round and round went the arguments between the two, with no resolution, no reconciliation in sight.


Chapter 2

 

And so, little Giovanni grew up in this family and society of contrasts and disparities. He was confused and anxious as he listened to his parents argue over how he should view himself and the world; he felt guilty because he thought he was the cause of his parents’ arguments. The child in him was also frightened when, inevitably, he heard the rumors of the murderous Borgias in his family’s past. His fear and his resentment grew as he realized his parents had tried to keep the Borgias a dark secret, especially from him.

Even more frightening were the tales he’d heard of the ghouls and vampyres coming to Florence in the time of the Roma. The servants who told him the stories knew that the disappearances and other strange disturbances had not entirely stopped after the Roma were driven out. They thought that the ghouls or vampyres still stalked the land, perhaps out of revenge for the cruel treatment of the Roma.

As a young child, he often awoke terrified after nightmares about these dark stories. He had been particularly frightened one night when a summer storm blew open the windows of his bedroom. The curtains had billowed into his room with the violent winds.

Maria heard his screams and rushed into his room. She found Giovanni curled up in a corner, terrified. She hurried over to close the window and cradled her son in her arms. “Shh,” she said. “It’s all right. It’s only a dream.”

“No,” he said, “there were monsters in the garden. I saw them out the window. Then they tried to get in!”

“What did these monsters look like?”

“They were big and dark and had long fingers reaching out for me,” he cried.

“Where did you hear of such things?”

“Giuseppe told me. They came with the people in the wagons.”

Maria reminded herself to speak to the servant about the matter. “No, there’s no such thing as monsters, Giovanni. It’s just silly stories the servants tell.”

She took his hand and walked to the window. “See, it’s only the wind blowing the trees and bushes to make shadows.”

Giovanni peered, uncertainly, out the window, into the dark.

 

Despite his mother’s reassurances, his childhood fears only grew. He began to believe that something strange had invaded his room, lurking in the dark corners and under his bed.

Matters came to a head one night when he was seven years old. Maria had gone to look in on Giovanni in his sleep, about ten o’clock in the evening, as was her custom. The sun had already set, and she took a candle into his room. She found his bed empty, the bedclothes strewn to one side, mostly lying on the floor. At first, Maria was not alarmed, knowing how restless he was with his nightmares. She thought he’d probably fallen off the bed on the other side. “Giovanni?” she asked as she unfurled the sheets, expecting to find him within them. She was shocked to find them empty. Frantically, Maria searched the room, but found no trace of him. She panicked when she saw the door from his room to the garden was ajar. “Help me! Help!” she screamed.

The household was alerted, and her husband soon appeared at the doorway, his face almost as white as the bedsheets on the floor. “What is it, Maria?” he asked, his voice trembling.

“Giovanni’s gone!”

Alessandro looked dumbfounded. “Gone! What do you mean?”

“He’s not in his bed, and the door to the garden is ajar. He’s gotten out, or someone has taken him.”

Alessandro leapt into action. He shouted orders at the head servant, Giuseppe. “Get the servants together in a search party, and call the guards to join us.” 

The tracking dogs were released, and the searchers headed out on horseback, torches held high. Alarmingly, the dogs lost the scent, and the search went on agonizingly slowly.  Maria was gripped by a numbing chill as she remembered that wild dogs had been prowling on the estate since the spring, and some of their deer kills had been found.

She strained to see any sign of a white contrast to the shadowed, rolling hills and thick, black clusters of bushes. “Nothing!” she wailed. “He couldn’t have gotten any farther by foot by this time. In the name of God, where is he?”

After several miles of ground had been covered, the party was faced with the heartbreaking prospect of searching the marshlands. Maria had already caught the smell of the stagnant ponds.

Suddenly, Giuseppe cried, “Look, there he is!” He pointed to a small figure only a few dozen yards away... There was little Giovanni, standing on a small rise in the faint torchlight. His nightclothes were flapping like white sails in the wind. 

The searchers encircled him. “Mother of God! Look at his eyes!” Maria cried. The others were startled to see only the whites of the child’s eyes showing. His eyes had rolled up into their sockets.

“It must be some kind of seizure,” shouted her husband. “Wrap him up, and let’s get him home.”

The boy was soon lying on the soft settee in the drawing room, before the fire. He was surrounded by adults who were desperately trying to revive him. “Giuseppe, Augusta, rub his hands and feet!” Maria said. She tapped his pale, cold cheeks vigorously and loudly called out his name.

Alessandro declared, “Look! His pupils have returned.” Consciousness had lit up his son’s eyes once again.

“Are you all right, Giovanni?” his mother asked anxiously.

There was relief as the child spoke. “I’m cold and have a sore head,” he complained, placing a hand to his forehead.

“Get him up and give him some hot wine,” ordered Alessandro. The child sat up on the edge of the settee.

Maria bent over him. “Do you remember anything tonight?”

“Yes, when I was sleeping I heard voices from far away calling to me.”

“Who were the voices?” his father asked.

“The Roma.”

The parents looked at one another, puzzled, but said nothing. No one wanted to add to his fears by questioning him further.

 

The doctor was summoned from the city and examined him that night. He had many questions, and he conveyed his conclusions the next morning to the anxious parents. “I do not believe it was a seizure,” he said, relieving them greatly. “Given what you say about his night fears, I suspect the child was sleepwalking. The condition can occur after a bad fright. It may be his way of protecting himself from imaginary creatures in his room by escaping to the outdoors at night.”

The parents were only too happy to have an explanation and the good doctor’s recommendations. They were to give Giovanni a light sleeping potion for a while. It was advised they take all measures to help him feel safe in his bed, until his fears eventually passed.


Chapter 3

 

Polidori’s night wanderings were not the only peculiarities that he had shown from his early childhood on. It was said there was an even stranger side to him. To the bewilderment and amusement of his family and friends, rather odd coincidences seemed to happen to him that were difficult to explain.

A perfect example was reported to Falding in a letter from Maria, many years after its occurrence. She and Giovanni, then four years old, were sitting in the villa’s garden on a warm, sunny Tuscan morning. She was reading to him from a book about birds. This was a fitting topic, for the garden was full of birds going about their business. Maria noticed that her son was intently watching a flock of hummingbirds near a bed of succulent flowers. Suddenly, one of the usually skittish birds hovered over him and landed on his outstretched finger. Mother and son burst into laughter.

Maria asked him, “What did you think of that, Giovanni?”

He giggled and replied, “I made the bird come to me, Momma.”

Maria laughed and asked, “Little Polidori, why do you say that?”

“Because I wished it to come to me. What I think in my mind happens.”

Maria smiled indulgently and said no more, putting this down to her child’s delightful imagination. As he grew up, he would learn the difference between himself and the world, and between his mind and reality, she knew. It was all a matter of maturation.

 

Maria liked to relate another unusual story about what happened when her son was nine years old. He had made a poem and a drawing for his favorite great-aunt, Sophia, on her eightieth birthday. She lived within easy riding distance of the family’s estate, and the young man had ridden his pony to the aunt’s villa to deliver her gifts. Unfortunately, she was not at home. Carelessly, he left his poem and drawing for her on a table in her garden.

Six months later, the aunt became very ill one evening, and the family expected her death at any moment. Polidori was caught between sadness and hope, desperately wanting to do something for his beloved aunt.

As it happened, she took a good turn over night, and the family went to visit her the next day. They found her in fine spirits, sitting up in her old, canopied bed.

She smiled at her nephew through the warm autumn morning sunshine pouring into the room. “Giovanni, I received your poem and drawing last night. The gardener brought them to me, and they cheered me up so much. Thank you.” Her forehead wrinkled. “But why would you send me a birthday poem when it wasn’t my birthday?”

     “But I brought the gifts months ago, Auntie. You weren’t at home, so I left them on the garden table.”

The gardener was called in to clear up the mystery. Aunt Sophia voiced the question that was on everybody’s mind. “Pietro, how did you find the gifts?”

“Madam, I was pruning the bush yesterday, and there they were, well preserved, tucked into the bush.”

The aunt’s eyes widened. “They must have been blown into the bush and were protected all that time from the weather. Imagine that!”

Everyone looked at the boy, amazed, but he seemed to take it all in stride. “My wish for Auntie to get better came true,” he said. “My presents came to her when she needed them,” he added matter-of-factly.