Sample text for The lady in blue : a novel / Javier Sierra.


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ONE

Venice, Italy

Spring 1991

Treading with a light step, Father Giuseppe Baldi left the Piazza San Marco

at sunset.

As was his custom, he walked along the canal to the Riva degli Schiavoni,

where he took the first vaporetto headed to San Giorgio Maggiore. The island

that appeared on every postcard of Venice was once upon a time the property

of his religious order, and the old priest always regarded it with nostalgia.

Time had brought many changes. Omnia mutantur. Everything was subject

to change these days. Even a faith with two thousand years of history behind

it.

Baldi consulted his wristwatch, undid the last button of his habit, and,

while scanning the boat for a seat close to the window, took the opportunity

to clean the lenses of his tiny, wire-rimmed glasses. "Pater noster qui es

in caelis...," he murmured in Latin.

With his glasses on, the Benedictine watched as the city of four hundred

bridges stretched out before him, tinged a deep orange.

"...sanctificetur nomen tuum..."

Without interrupting his prayer, the priest admired the evening as he glanced

discreetly to either side.

"Everything as it should be," he thought to himself.

The vaporetto, the familiar water bus used by Venetians to get from place to

place, was almost empty at this hour. Only a few Japanese and three

scholarship students whom Baldi recognized as being from the Giorgio Cini

Foundation seemed interested in the ride.

"Why am I still doing this?" he asked himself. "Why am I still watching the

other six-o'clock passengers out of the corners of my eyes, as if I was going

to find that one of them was carrying a journalist's camera? Haven't I

already spent enough years holed up on this island, far from them?"

Fourteen minutes later, the water bus dropped him off on an ugly concrete

dock. A gust of cold air burst in as he opened the cabin door, and everyone

braced against the night air. No one paid any attention as he disembarked.

In his heart of hearts, Baldi cherished his undisturbed life on the island.

When he arrived at his cell, he would wash, change his shoes, eat dinner with

the community, and then bury himself in reading or correcting exams. He had

followed that daily ritual since he had arrived at the abbey nineteen years

before. Nineteen years of peace and tranquillity, certainly. But he was

always on guard, waiting for a call, a letter, or an unannounced visit. That

was his punishment. The kind of load that is never lifted from one's

shoulders.

Baldi restrained himself from giving in to his obsession.

Was there a more agreeable life than the one his studies afforded him? He

knew the answer was no. His various duties as professor of pre-polyphony at

the Benedetto Marcello Conservatory allowed him the peace of mind that had

always eluded him as a young man. His students were hardworking. They

attended his lectures with moderate enthusiasm and listened as he explained

the music of the first millennium, spicing his lectures with interesting

anecdotes. In short, they respected him. The faculty admired him as well,

even though he sometimes missed classes because he was absorbed in his

research.

And yet, such a stress-free environment never managed to distract him from

his other pursuits. They were so "confidential" and long-standing that he had

rarely even mentioned them to anyone.

Baldi had come to San Giorgio in 1972, exiled for crimes owing to music. The

Cini Foundation offered him more than he would have dared to request from his

superior: one of the best libraries in Europe; a convention center that on

more than one occasion had hosted UNESCO conferences; and two scholarly

institutions dedicated to Venetian music and ethnomusicology that so

intoxicated him. To a certain extent, it was logical that the Benedictines

had made the effort to create that paradise of musicology at San Giorgio. Who

if not the brothers of the Order of Saint Benedict would busy themselves with

such devotion to that ancient art? Was it not Saint Benedict himself who,

once he had established the rules for his order in the sixth century, went on

to create the fundamentals of modern musical science?

Baldi had studied the subject thoroughly. He was the first, for example, to

appreciate that Saint Benedict's decree, which required all members of his

order to attend eight religious services a day, was based entirely on music.

A fascinating secret. In fact, the prayers that he and his brothers recited

daily were inspired by the "modes" still employed in the composition of

melodies. Baldi proved that matins (the prayers said at two in the morning

during wintertime) corresponded to the note do, and lauds, recited at dawn,

corresponded to re. The offices of the first, the third, and the sixth

hours, performed at six, nine, and twelve noon, corresponded to mi, fa, and

sol. And the hour of strongest light, none, at three in the afternoon,

corresponded to la, while the prayers recited at dusk, during the setting of

the sun, corresponded to ti.

That was the class that had made him famous among his students. "Notes and

hours are related!" he would boom from his podium. "To pray and to compose

are parallel activities! Music is the true language of God!"

And yet Baldi the old soldier had still other discoveries hidden in his

study. His thesis was astounding. He believed, for example, that the ancients

not only knew harmony and applied it, via mathematics, to music, but that

harmony was capable of provoking altered states of consciousness that

permitted priests and initiates in the classical world to gain access to

"superior" realms of reality. He defended his idea over the course of decades,

doing battle with those who asserted that such sensations of spiritual

elevation were always brought about by means of hallucinatory drugs, sacred

mushrooms, or other psychotropic substances.

"And how exactly did they 'use' music?" Baldi would ask rhetorically,

becoming more animated. He admitted that for the wise men of history it was

enough to develop a mental "wavelength" adequate for the reception of

information from "far away." It was said that in this state, those adept in

magic could reawaken any moment in the past, no matter how remote. Put

another way, according to Baldi, music modulated the frequency of our brain

waves, stimulating centers of perception capable of navigating through time.

But these techniques, he explained with great resignation, had been lost.

While many questioned Baldi's outlandish ideas, even the fiercest polemics

had in no way soured his jovial and friendly outlook. His silver hair,

athletic deportment, and honest face gave him the look of an irresistible

conqueror. No one seriously believed he was seventy-five years old. In fact,

had it not been for his vow of chastity, Baldi would have broken the hearts

of many of his female students.

That day, serenely unaware of the events that were about to unfold, Baldi

smiled as he entered the Benedictine residence, walking at his usual lively

pace. He hardly even noticed Brother Roberto waiting for him in the doorway,

looking as if he had something urgent to tell him.

Copyright © 2007 by Javier Sierra

Translation copyright © 2007 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.




Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Nuns -- Spain -- History -- 16th century -- Fiction.
Guadalupe, Our Lady of -- Fiction.
Mexico -- History -- Conquest, 1519-1540 -- Fiction.