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The air was warm and sweet in the upland meadows. The tall hills sank into deep valleys or soared into a cloudless sky. Along a narrow, stony track that weaved through soft, long grass studded with vivid wildflowers, a group of 20 people dressed in hiking clothes and shouldering back packs toiled. The group, twelve women and eight men, ranged in age between 60 and 83. Their nationalities included a smattering of Americans, Canadians, Swedes, Japanese while Australians made up over half the group.
They were led by an Italian - a native to the area. Mario Tedeschi was a tall man with a plain face. Aged in his late thirties, he spoke excellent English. He had an impish sense of humour, was a natural storyteller and had a seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of art, literature, biology, politics and geology.
The group liked Mario. Sadly, they were about to lose him. The next day, the tour would move on to the Lombardy region. There, another guide, a native to that region, would take his place.
Only one man didn't like Mario Tedeschi, but then nobody much cared for the opinion of David Trengrove anyway and that included his long suffering wife, Sarah.
The tour of Northern Italy was now two weeks into a five week sojourn. Already it seemed an age since the group had met at the Zurich airport. An age since the bus had struggled through the early morning traffic snarl into the Brenner Pass. Surely months, not weeks had elapsed since the bus finally left the freeway and turned into the first of a series of backroads leading into Italy's lightly populated Sud Tyrol region. Already, the group had sampled many delicious local meals and regional wines. They had taken roll after roll of film of the Austrian style chalets, breathtaking scenery and picturesque inhabitants. They had learnt that the beauty and peace of the scenery, with its medieval churches and monasteries and quaint cobbled streets, was also the setting for some of the bloodiest battles of the First World War. Almost every building, it seemed, could tell its own tale of treachery and cold blooded ferocity, stretching back over centuries of turmoil through wars, plagues and starvation - to well before the emergence of the Roman civilisation.
And it was in that two weeks that the group had learned to detest David Trengrove.
'We'll pause here,' Mario decided. The group gathered in a wide circle around him. 'In the distance,' he continued 'you'll see a fortified town. It will take about three hours of steady walking for us to reach the staircase up to the town. Our bus will be waiting there with your luggage. It will be necessary for each of you to carry your luggage from the bus up the stairs and into the town which is only accessible by foot. When we reach the top, you'll find yourself in one of the best preserved hillside towns of Itlay. You'll enjoy a stunning view of the countryside and appreciate its brilliant strategic placement. Tonight, we'll be staying in the 13th Century monastery of Veracella.
'To prepare for the walk ahead, we'll rest here for a few minutes and drink some water. While you do that, I'll tell you a story about the monastery that is known as the Abbey of Veracella.
'Once upon a time,' Mario commenced.
'Oh good, I love stories that start like that,' Sarah Trengrove interrupted excitedly.
'Shut up,' her husband snapped irritably. 'Let him tell his story in his own way. Then we can all move on out of the sun.'
'Once,' Mario began again, ' there were two brothers. They lived in Bergamo, then a large town situated about 80 miles from the Abbey.
'Their names were Lorenzo and Ricardo Calvini. Ricardo was ten years older than Lorenzo. They were the only surviving children of a once large family, most of whom had died in a plague. The Calvinis had at one time been the trusted and prosperous servants of a ducal family. By the 17th century, when our story takes place, the family fortunes had declined. Their mother had died, giving birth to Lorenzo. When Ricardo was 34 and Lorenzo 24, their father died, leaving a modest estate.
'In Ricardo's case, the lack of an inheritance meant little. As a teenager, he had trained as a noviate, became a monk and entered the Abbey of Veracella. He was an excellent scholar, devout, a natural leader and had a keen eye for finances. He soon took over the books of the monastery and became the Abbot's clerk. When the old Abbot died, Ricardo was appointed to the post - a singular honour for one so young.
'His brother, Lorenzo was a very different man. He was tall where Ricardo was short. He was handsome, charming, vain and impetuous. As may be imagined, he was very popular with women and could boast of many conquests, as well as narrow escapes from infuriated husbands, brothers or lovers. Fortunately, Lorenzo was an excellent swordsman - a skill which enabled him to fight his way out of many an ambush.
'Then one day he made the fatal error of becoming attracted to the daughter of Guido Mantegna. She was, by all accounts, a very beautiful girl. Graceful, well formed, hair black as a raven's wing, pale skin, a high forehead and searching eyes. She was 16 and her father expected her to make a brilliant marriage with the Duke of Modena. The joining of the two great families would create a rich and powerful alliance with direct control of much of the trade passing between Northern Italy. Switzerland and Austria.
'Guido Mantegna was not a man to cross. He was shrewd, ruthless and powerful. His five sons were equally determined to protect the honour of their sister and the family name. And into this volatile and dangerous family, wandered feckless, charming Lorenzo, with no prospects for advancement and insufficient intelligence to realise that he was hopelessly outwitted and over matched.
'Beatrice Mantegna chaffed beneath the tight control of her father and brothers. Her mother might have softened the harsh, male dominated atmosphere but she had died some years before. As ill fortune would have it, Beatrice saw Lorenzo one day in the square, laughing and singing with his friends and fell in love with him.
'Recklessly, Beatrice enlisted the help of her maid to pass a note to Lorenzo.
'It would be pleasant to describe Lorenzo as some sort of idealistic and passionate lover - another Romeo. The truth was that he was an accomplished seducer and a very nasty piece of work. When he received the note, Lorenzo gathered large wagers from his friends that he would swiftly seduce the daughter of Guido Mantegna.
'He arranged to meet the foolish and headstrong girl in the local graveyard. He then arraged for six of his friends to witness the seduction. I'm sure that some. if not all of these young men, anticipated raping Beatrice after Lorenzo had finished with her.
'On the day of the assignation however, Beatrice's maid lost her nerve and betrayed her mistress. When he heard the maid's confession, Guido fell into a rage and strangled her to still her tongue. He then locked his daughter in her room.
'Lorenzo arrived at the graveyard. waiting for Beatrice, he decided to check if his friends were in position, hiding behind the gravestones. They seemed unnaturally quiet. Calling softly to them, he began to explore the darkened graveyard. To his horror, he stumbled on the bodies, strewn in heaps among the shadows. Each young man had been stabbed or garotted. As Lorenzo recoiled in fear, the black shapes of men began to materialise from behind the gravestones and mausoleums. He recognised a number of Beatrice's brothers, as well as a band of bravos hired from another village.
'In the dark and confusion, Lorenzo fought his way out of the perilious trap. Finding an unattended horse tethered nearby, he rode into the blackened countryside. In time, he threw off his pursuers.
'Of course, from that moment on, Lorenzo's life was swiftly running out.
'There was only one safe place for anyone fleeing the wrath of Guido Mantegna - the sanctuary of the Abbey of Veracella. So shortly before dawn, the monks rose to find the brother of their beloved Abbot seeking sanctuary.
'Ricardo was furious when he heard his brother's story and seriously considered turning him away. He was astonished to find Lorenzo treated the business as a joke. There was no remorse for his sleazy plan or for the death of his friends. Reluctantly, the Abbot allowed his brother to remain as a guest. He warned him however to never step beyond the protection of the monastery's gates. Ricardo felt sure that Guido would never rest until this stain on his family's honour was avenged. He would soon know where Lorenzo was hiding and would station men on permanent watch close to the monastery, ready to kill the young man if he emerged.
'Lorenzo was a very stupid man and as the weeks passed, he fretted in increasing boredom. Denied the pleasures of wine, whores and the merry company of his friends, he spent many hours staring sullenly through the narrow windows of the monastery. Apart from the occasional labourer or monk working in the fields below, the countryside seemed to be deserted. It was as though the world had fallen into a deep slumber. As the weeks passed, Lorenzo became increasingly convinced that it was safe to venture out. It felt unmanly to shelter behind the skirts of the monks.
'One night, he stole out of the monastery opening a seldom used door. He eased the heavy door open, wincing at the muffled squeal of the hinges.
'He found himself beside a wall which dropped sheer and deep to a cliff edge and from there, hundreds of feet into a shadowed valley. Stairs wound down inside the wall to the monastery courtyard. He would take these stairs and unbolt the exit gate. Then he would jam the lock open for his return. If he left now, he could return to the safety of the monastery before dawn. Who would even know that he had gone?
'But as he moved toward the stairs, a shadow glided from the greater darkness of a corner and softly called "Lorenzo". His hand fell to his sword. Then he cursed, remembering that his brother had insisted that all arms be locked away in the Abbot's study.
'The shadow moved into the moonlight and Lorenzo saw, to his relief, that it was Ricardo.
' "What are you doing here?" Ricardo demanded in quiet anger. "I told you to never leave the sanctuary of the monastery."
' "It was hot. I felt stifled inside my room. I just came out here for a breath of fresh air."
Ricardo took in the travelling cloak of his brother and shook his head.
' "You're a poor liar. No, you were going to go well beyond the monastery walls. I think you were going to Guido Matenga's home. There you were going to find some way to seduce or rape his daughter. You wanted to revenge yourself for the death of those loathsome brutes you called your friends. Then you thought you could come back here to safety."
' "And if I did?" Lorenzo sneered.
' "I blame myself.," his brother continued sadly, "The Church has always offered sanctuary to fugitives. I also let my family loyalty sway my judgement. I should have turned you away when you first came here. Since then, I have heard many disturbing rumours that you have corrupted several younger members of our order into filthy and unnatural vice."
'Ricardo moved toward his smiling brother. "Evil cannot live beside good. I must finish this now."
'The next day, one of the monks found the shattered body of Lorenzo Calvini at the base of the cliff. It was assumed that in the night, he had lost his footing and had fallen to his death.
'Ricardo continued on as Abbot at Veracella for the next eight years. Many however thought that he never really recovered from the grief at losing his brother. He died when a plague swept the countryside. The same dreadful plague also killed Guido Mantegna and all of his sons.
'Beatrice married the Duke of Modena. The Duke was not a handsome man, but he treated his wife with kindness and respect. She grew to love him and they had six children. Beatrice often lit a candle in her father's memory, thanking him in her prayers for having saved her from being disgraced by Lorenzo Calvini.'
'Have you finished?,' David Trengrove demanded, standing up. 'Then, can we get on the move again, rather than boiling in the sun?'
'I liked the story,' his wife said with unexpected spirit. 'It wasn't romantic, but it was instructive.'
'Instructive of what? You're talking rubbish as usual', Trengrove snapped. This time, instead of blushing and shrinking back, Sarah seemed unmoved.
As the group resumed its walk, Mario Tedeschi found himself thinking of David Trengrove. It was almost possible to pity the man, he decided. Trengrove had been a middle ranking executive in a large Australian electronics firm. When the firm was sold to a German company, Trengrove was sidelined and then retrenched. Increasingly, he had turned his frustration and anger on his wife who hoped a trip through Northern Italy might provide her husband with a new interest.
All this, Tedeschi learned from one of the party who had known the Trengroves in Melbourne.
Tedeschi generally liked the men and women who he led through this part of Northern Italy, but he judged David Trengrove to be an ugly bully. People were uncomfortable with the way he treated his wife and Mario sensed that someone, before long, would bite back.
The group's peace of mind was being poisoned by the presence of David Trengrove. For his part, Mario was grateful that the next day, he would hand over responsibility for the group to another leader and he would never see the the couple again.
Later that evening, the group dined with the Abbot and several of the senior monks at the long refractory table in the Main Dining Hall of the Abbey of Veracella.
'Delicious food,' someone complimented the host.
The Abbot, a tolerant Belgian in his mid sixties, smiled. 'Thank you. We can't claim to eat as well as some orders, but one of the great pleasures of living in this place is that we can draw on fresh produce, talented and imaginative cooks and some very reasonably priced and quite respectable local wines.
'Now,' he continued, wagging an admonishing finger. 'I hope that my old friend, Mario Tedeschi hasn't been filling your minds with his fanciful tales of revengeful fathers, beautiful but foolish daughters and guilt-ridden Abbots.'
'So did Lorenzo and Ricardo Calvini exist?' Sarah Trengrove asked.
'Probably,' the Abbot conceded. 'But whether what Mario has told you actually occured is doubtful. I'm not a historian. I majored in astronomy and theology. I know though that most Italian history was written to please certain aristocrats and to settle old scores. Who can hope to tease out the threads of truth in events that occurred centuries ago?'
'But I've read that there is one section of the Abbey that's called Lorenzo's Fall', one of the party objected.
'Yes,' the Abbot smiled. He wondered why many visitors took history so earnestly. Was there still a place in their lives to enjoy delightful and innocent fantasy. 'It may be that this is where he fell to his death. However,' his expression changed, 'one thing is not in doubt. The area referred to is crumbling masonry. It's very unsafe and is therefore out of bounds to both our brothers and visitors. Two years ago, the area was accessible. A German tourist who was taking photos stepped too close to the wall. He tripped and trying to regain his balance seized a section of the wall. The wall crumbled in his hands and he fell headlong into the valley. A horrible death and one which will not be repeated.
'We would like to repair the wall, but there are just enough funds to maintain the habitable sections of the Abbey and nothing more. We placed a chain across the stairs and posted warning signs. Nothing however has been done to improve the safety of Lorenzo's Fall. Please do not, under any circumstances, go there.
'Now', he concluded, 'let me propose a toast. I hope and pray that you will enjoy your overnight stay with us. That you will find much to inform and entertain you on the rest of your trip and that each of you will have a safe return to your homes.'
The next day, the departure of the bus was delayed as the group waited for the Trengroves to join them. Just as Mario Tedeschi was about to disembark to find them, Sarah Trengrove came hurrying down the staircase from the town with her suitcase and backpack.
'I'm so sorry to keep you all waiting,' she apologised, catching her breath.
'Where's your husband?', Mario sighed. The tour was tightly scheduled. This delay may might it necessary to cancel one of the visits to a museum.
'That's the reason I'm late. David told me this morning, he had decided to leave the group and stay on for a while. We needed to make separate arrangements.'
At the news of David Trengrove's departure, a number of people sighed with relief. Secretly, Mario felt elated. Nearly a dozen times in the last fortnight, he had been tempted to argue with the man. Later, Mario privately conceded, if he had liked the man more, he might have tried to find Trengrove and confirm his departure.
'It's very short notice,' Mario grumbled. 'I don't see how our tour operators can be expected to refund any part of his money at this stage.'
'No, that's alright,' Sarah assured him, moving down the bus. She found her seat and put her backpack on the seat once occupied by her husband. 'He won't be expecting a refund. It's just that he felt he could learn more looking around by himself.'
'I hope that he's very careful looking around,' Tedeschi felt he needed to say. 'As the Abbot told us, parts of the monastery are dangerous to visit. I hope that your husband listened to the warning not to go near Lorenzo's Fall.'
'Oh, he heard the warning alright,' Sarah smiled back.
Mario smiled in return. It's surprising, he thought, how attractive that woman is when she's not with her husband. He felt a fleeting regret that he would not have time to know her better.
The bus driver slipped the bus into gear and it began its long descent down the tight, winding road.
As the bus picked up speed, Sarah Trengrove added so softly that none could hear, 'But then of course, David never took notice of anything others told him.'