The Lozenges of Giovanni
How a Milanese Baker-Boy and a Paduan Physician Kept Poison out of the King's Dish
R ANULPH the troubadour was riding along a lonely moorland trail, singing softly to himself. In so poor a neighborhood there was little fear of robbers, and the Barbary horse which he had under him could outrun most other horses. The light-stepping hoofs made little noise upon the springy turf, and as the song ended he heard some one sobbing behind a group of stunted bushes. ae halted and listened. The sound ceased.
"Ho there, little one—what is the trouble?"
He spoke in Saxon, the language of the country folk, but at the first words a figure sprang up and dodged from shrub to rock like a scared leveret. He called again quickly in French:
"Hola! little friend, wait a moment!"
There was no answer. Somehow he did not like to leave the mystery unsolved. There must be a child in trouble, but what child could there be in this wild place, and neither Norman nor Saxon? It was not far enough to the West to be Welsh borderland, and it was too far south to be near either Scotland or the Danelaw. He spoke in Provençal, and the fugitive halted at the sound of the soft southern o's and a's; then he spoke in the Lombard dialect of Milan. A boy ventured out of the thicket and stood staring at him. Ranulph flung himself off his horse and held out his hand.
"Come here, little comrade, and tell me who you are, and why you are all alone here."
The boy's eyes grew wider in his elvish face and his hands opened and shut nervously as he answered in Italian:
"I am no one, and I have no home. Take me not to prison."
"There is no thought of a prison, my lad, but I cannot wait here. Come, ride with me, and I will take you to a kind woman who will take care of you."
The boy hesitated, but at last loneliness conquered timidity and distrust, and he came. The troubadour swung him up to the front of the saddle and they rode on through the gathering dusk. Forgetting his terror as he heard the familiar sound of his native tongue, the boy told his story readily enough. His name was Giovanni Bergamotto, but he had been born in Milan, in the year that Barbarossa crossed the Alps. The first thing that he could really remember was his mother crying over her father and two brothers, who had been killed in the siege. He remembered many days when there was nothing to eat in the house. When Milan was taken he was old enough to walk at his mother's side as the people were driven out and the city destroyed so that no one should ever live there again. His father had been killed when the Emperor hung a siege-tower all over with hostages and captives to be shot at by their own people within the walls. He remembered his grandfather lifting him up to see when the Carocchio was brought out, and the great crucifix above the globe was lowered to do homage to the Emperor. He remembered seeing the Imperial banner unfurled from the top of the Cathedral. These things, his grandfather told him, no Milanese should ever forget.
He and his mother had wandered about from one city to another until his mother died, two or three years later. He had worked for a pastry cook who beat him and starved him. At last he had run away and stolen his passage on a ship bound for England. They had beaten him when they found him, but kept him to help the cook. When he landed at a southern port on the English coast, he had found himself in a land of cold mist, where no sun shone, no fruit grew, and no one knew his language. He had turned at first naturally to the towns, for he was a city boy and craved the companionship of the crowd. But when he said that he was a Lombard they seemed to be angry. Perhaps there was some dreadful mistake, and he was in a land where the Ghibellines, the friends of the Emperor, were the rulers.
When at last he faltered out this question his new friend gave a compassionate little laugh and patted his shoulder reassuringly.
"No, little one, there is no fear of that. This is England, and the English King rules all the people. We have neither Guelf nor Ghibelline. A red rose here—is just a rose," he added as he saw Giovanni's questioning look at the crimson rose in his cap. Red roses were the flower of the Guelf party in North-Italian cities, as the white rose was the badge of the Ghibellines who favored the Imperial party; and the cities were divided between the two and fiercely partisan.
"The Lombards in London," Ranulph went on, "are often money-lenders, and this the people hate. That is why thy black hair and eyes and thy Lombard tongue made them suspect thee, little comrade."
Giovanni gave a long sigh of relief and fell silent, and when he was lifted off the horse at the door of Dame Lavender he had to be shaken awake to eat his supper. Then he was put to bed in a corner of the attic under the thatched roof, and the fragrance of well-known herbs and flowers came stealing into his dreams on the silent wind of the night.
Language is not needed when a boy finds himself in the home of a born mother. All the same, Giovanni felt still more as is he must have waked up in heaven when he found sitting by the hearth a kind, grave old man who was himself an Italian, and to whom the tragedy of the downfall of Milan was known. Tomaso the physician told Dame Lavender all about it while Giovanni was helping Mary sort herbs in the still-room. Mary had learned a little of the physician's language and knew what he liked, and partly by signs, partly in hobbling Italian, they arrived at a plan for making a vegetable soup and cooking a chicken for dinner in a way that Giovanni knew. As the fragrance of the simmering broth came in at the door Tomaso sniffed it, smiled and went to see what the little waif was about. Standing in the doorway he watched Giovanni slicing garlic and nodded to himself. Men had died of a swift dagger-thrust in a bye-street of Lombardy because they cut an onion or ate an orange in the enemy's fashion. By such small signs were Guelf and Ghibelline known.
"My boy," said the old physician, when dinner was over and Giovanni, pleased beyond measure at the compliments paid his cooking, was awaiting further orders, "do you know that Milan is going to be rebuilt?"
The Milanese boy's pinched white face lighted with incredulous rapture. "Rebuilt?" he stammered.
"Some day," said Tomaso. "The people of four Lombard cities met in secret and made that vow not three years after the Emperor gained his victory. They have built a city at the joining of two rivers, and called it Alexandria after the Pope whom he drove out of Rome. He still has his own governors in the cities that he conquered, but the League is gaining every month. Milan will be once more the Queen of the Midland—perhaps before very long. But it is a secret."
"They may kill me," Giovanni stammered, "but I will not tell. I will never tell."
Tomaso smiled. "I knew that, my son," he said. "That is why I spoke of this to you. You may talk freely to me or to Ranulph the troubadour, but to no one else unless we give you leave. You must be patient, wise and industrious, and fit yourself to be a true citizen of the Commune. For the present, you must be a good subject of the English King, and learn the language."
Giovanni hid the precious secret in his heart during the months that followed, and learned both English and French with a rapidity that astonished Dame Lavender. He had a wisdom in herbs and flowers, too, that was almost uncanny. In the kitchen-gardens of the great houses where he had been a scullion, there were many plants used for perfumes, flavorings or coloring fluids, which were quite unknown to the English cook. He was useful to Dame Lavender both in the garden and the still-room. He knew how to make various delicious cakes as well, and how to combine spices and honey and syrups most cunningly, for he had seen pastry-cooks and confectioners preparing state banquets, and he never forgot anything he had seen.
The castle which crowned the hill in the midst of the small town where Dame Lavender lived had lately been set in order for the use of a very great lady—a lady not young, but accustomed to luxury and good living—and all the resources of Dame Lavender's garden had been taxed to provide perfumes, ointments and fresh rose-leaves, for the linen-presses and to be strewn about the floors. Mary and her mother had all that they could do in serving Queen Eleanor.
The Queen was not always easy to please. In her youth she had traveled with Crusaders and known the strange cities of the East; she had escaped once from a castle by night, in a boat, to free herself from a too-persistent suitor. She was not one of the meek ladies who spent their days in needlework, and as for spinning and weaving, she had asked scornfully if they would have her weave herself a hair shirt like a hermit. Mary Lavender was not, of course, a maid of honor, but she found that the Queen seemed rather to like having her about.
"I wish I had your secret, Marie of the Flowers," said graceful Philippa, one weary day. "Tell me what you do, that our Lady the Queen likes so well."
Mary smiled in her frank, fearless way. "It may be," she answered, "that it is the fragrance of the flowers. She desires now to embroider red roses for a cushion, and I have to ask Master Tomaso how to dye the thread."
The embroidering of red roses became popular at once, but soon there was a new trouble. The Queen began to find fault with her food.
"This cook flavors all his dishes alike," she said pettishly. "He thinks that colored toys of pastry and isinglass feed a man's stomach. When the King comes here—although he never knows what is set before him, that is true,—I would like well to have a fit meal for his gentlemen. Tell this Beppo that if he cannot cook plain toothsome dishes I will send for a farmer's wench from Longley Farm."
This was the first that had been heard of the King's intended visit, and great was the excitement in the kitchen. Ranulph dismounted at the door of Dame Lavender's cottage and asked for Giovanni. Beppo the cook had been calling for more help, and the local labor market furnished nothing that suited him. Would Giovanni come? He would do anything for Ranulph and for Mary.
"That is settled, then," laughed Ranulph. "I shall not have to scour the country for a scullion with hands about him instead of hoofs or horns."
In his fourteen years of poverty the little Italian had learned to hold his tongue and keep his eyes open. Beppo was glad enough to have a helper who did not have to be told anything twice, and in the hurry-scurry of the preparations Giovanni made himself useful beyond belief. The cakes, however, did not suit the Queen. Mary came looking for Giovanni in the kitchen-garden.
"Vanni," she said, "will you make some of your lozenges for the banquet? Beppo says you may. I think that perhaps his cakes are not simple enough, and I know that the King likes plain fare."
Giovanni turned rather white. "Very well Mistress Mary," he answered.
Giovanni's lozenges were not candies, although they were diamond-shaped like the lozenges that are named after them. They were cakes made after the recipe still used in some Italian bakeries. He pounded six ounces of almonds; then he weighed eight eggs and put enough pounded sugar in the opposite scale to balance them; then he took out the eggs and weighed an equal amount of flour, and of butter. He melted the butter in a little silver saucepan. The eggs were not beaten, because egg-beaters had not been invented; they were strained through a sieve from a height into a bowl, and thus mixed with air. Two of the eggs were added to the pounded almonds, and then the whole was mixed with a wooden spoon in a wooden bowl. The paste was spread on a thin copper plate and baked in an oven built into the stone wall and heated by a fireplace underneath. While still warm the cake was cut into diamond-shaped pieces, called lozenges after the carved stone memorial tablets in cathedrals. The Queen approved them, and said that she would have those cakes and none other for the banquet, but with a little more spice. Beppo, who had paid the sweetmeats a grudging compliment, produced some ground spice from his private stores and told Giovanni to use that.
"Vanni," said Mary laughing as she passed through the kitchen on the morning of the great day, "do you always scour your dishes as carefully as this?" The boy looked up from the copper plate which he was polishing. Mary thought he looked rather somber for a cook who had just been promoted to the office of baker to the King.
"Things cannot be too clean," he said briefly. "Mistress Mary, will you ask Master Tomaso for some of the spice that he gave to your mother, for me?"
Mary's blue eyes opened. Surely a court cook like Beppo ought to have all the spice needed for a simple cake like this. However, she brought Giovanni a packet of the fragrant stuff an hour later, and found Beppo fuming because the work was delayed. The basket of selected eggs had been broken, the melted butter had been spilled, and the cakes were not yet ready for the oven. Giovanni silently and deftly finished beating his pastry, added the spice, rolled out the dough, began the baking. When the cakes came out of the oven, done to a turn, and with a most alluring smell, he stood over them as they cooled and packed them carefully with his own hands into a basket. Mary Lavender came through the kitchen just as the last layer was put in.
"Those are beautiful cakes, Vanni," she said kindly. "I am sure they are fit for the King. Did you use the spice I gave you?"
Giovanni's heart gave a thump. He had not reckoned on the fact that simple Mary had grown up where there was no need of hiding a plain truth, and now Beppo would know. The cook turned on him.
"What? What?" he cried. "You did not use my spices? You take them and do not use them?"
Mary began to feel frightened. The cook's black eyes were flashing and his mustache bristling with excitement, until he looked like the cross cat on the border of the Queen's book of fables. But Giovanni was standing his ground.
"I used good spice," he said firmly. "Try and see."
He held out one of the cakes to Beppo, who dashed it furiously to the ground.
"Where are my spices?" he shrieked. "You meant to steal them?" He dashed at the lad and seized him as if to search for the spices. Giovanni shook in his grasp like a rat in the jaws of a terrier, but he did not cringe.
"I sent that packet of spice to Master Tomaso an hour ago," he gasped defiantly, "asking him if it was wholesome to use in the kitchen—and here he is now."
At sight of the old physician standing calm as a judge in the doorway, Beppo bolted through the other door, seized a horse that stood in the courtyard and was gone before the astonished servants got their breath.
"What is all this?" inquired Tomaso. "I came to warn that man that the packet of spice which you sent is poison. Where did you get it?"
"The cook bought it of a peddler and gave it to Vanni," answered Mary, scared but truthful. "You all heard him say that he did," she added to the bystanders. "He told Vanni to use it in these cakes, but Vanni used the spice you gave us."
"I have seen that peddler before," gasped Giovanni. "He tried to bribe me to take the Queen a letter and a packet, and I would not. I put some of the spice in honey, and the flies that ate of it died. Then I sent it to you."
"It was a subtle device," said Tomaso slowly. "The spice would disguise the flavor. Every one knew that Giovanni was to make the cakes, and that the Queen will not come to the banquet. When it is served do you send each sauce to me for testing. We will have no poison in the King's dish."
The plot, as Tomaso guessed, had not been born of the jealousy of a cook, but of subtler brains beyond the seas. The Queen might well have been held responsible if the poison had worked. But when she heard of it she wept.
"I have not been loyal," she flung out, in tearful defiance, "but I would not have done that—never that!"