Giovinette che fate all'amore, Non lasciate che passi l'età! Se nel seno vi bulica il core, Il rimedio vedetelo qua!
"Beat me, beat me," she said, and eventually he did. It had been a young marriage, and a short courtship. Zerlina had been confident from the beginning that she could manage Masetto, and while that had been true up to a point, she found that she could not similarly control all life's circumstances.
Stumbling down the main road away from her village, shocked, bruised and bleeding and unsure of her direction, she met a lady dressed in white. It hurt to courtsey. The lady stopped and looked directly at her, then bore down on her. "Child, what ails you?" She took her chin in a white, gloved hand, and met her eyes directly. "Zerlina, is it not? Stay, do not falter thus -" as Zerlina's vision blurred momentarily "- the day is hot. Do you come under my roof and rest your feet. Here, lean on my arm."
She supported Zerlina and led her to the small, white house. Zerlina saw citrus trees as her benefactor helped her up the path. As the lady removed her hat, Zerlina finally recognised Donna Elvira.
"Do you know me, child?" she asked. Zerlina bowed her head once. "You saved me twice before, lady. The first time I was so angry, and so embarassed. Almost I thought your senses were deranged. The second time I was so frightened and so rueful. I thought you a very angel." "I was no angel. It was that impious man who was sent from hell to torment women. But tell me of your fate since last I saw you. How came you to this pass? Were you not reunited with your husband, your Masetto?"
Zerlina told her story briefly. "After the lord's disappearance, his servant departed too, with his wife. A new lord came, and a new steward with him. The harvest did not prosper, and the steward was cruel." "Perhaps the land was blighted by its accursed former master." "Perhaps. Masetto was unhappy. When he is angry, he is like wood, unmovable. He would not let me touch him. He accused me of infamous acts with every man he saw. I could not contradict him, after what had come before."
"He seemed such a tender man." "Life was not kind to him. Night and day I tried to reach him. Then he beat me. Then I lost the child. He blamed me for my folly with that lord who had hurt him also. He beat me again, and then he spurned me." "Poor child!" The lady's face was like thunder. "And you have been travelling since?" "We live not far from here." "But tell me. You lost a child. Are you still hurt?" "A little. I am yet bleeding a little." "Monstrous. A cloth, some herbs - I will send for a midwife or an apothecary, and seek to know what herbs to give you - "
Donna Elvira's helpless pity touched Zerlina's heart. "There is no need." "Come, I wish to help." "I know what remedies to take. A tea made with willow bark will ease the flow and pain together." She was amused and sanguine at once at Donna Elvira's ignorance.
She heard the lady's purse jingle as she strode to the front door, and her cry of "You, boy!" into the street.
On Donna Elvira's insistance, Zerlina lay in bed for the next day. The bruises were beginning to come up on her shoulder and back. The left shoulder was worse than she had thought, violet with swollen red around it. Donna Elvira let out a little cry on seeing it in the morning.
He hadn't hit her belly.
The room she had put Zerlina in was plain but clean. It was clearly a servant's room, but clearly also empty. "Lady, where is your maid?" Zerlina asked. "She left last month to be married, poor child." "Will you not marry, lady?" Donna Elvira looked sad, but not angered by the question. "I loved only one man, girl, that devil who has gone below now. He took delight in awakening my heart to love. Ah, how I loved him. Such delight he took in awakening my heart. His delight was not for me, but because I had not yet known what men are." "Yes, I know." He had accosted Zerlina at her wedding day, her vows fresh on her lips, before the dancing was over.
"Had I known then what he was," Donna Elvira continued, "I think I still could not have resisted him. And after he seduced, betrayed, disgraced and abandoned me, my treacherous heart still wished for his presence, longed to save him. No, child, I will not marry. Here I live in retirement, as you see."
She reached again for Zerlina's arm. "Zerlina, will you go back to Masetto?" "Lady, no." "Then will you stay with me in place of the maid who left, and serve me here?" "Yes, lady." "Then, under this roof, call me lady no longer, but Elvira."
That night, without warning she found herself in a passion of weeping, not for Masetto but for the child they had lost, the children they would never have. She curled up and pressed the blanket tightly to her eyes.
Elvira came to her and touched her hair. "What is it?" "The child -" Zerlina began. Elvira stroked her scalp. "Hush, poor girl. I am here. You shall have mistress and child in me." There was something badly wrong with that, with this woman trying to take her baby's place, but Zerlina could not speak, so she cried harder, and felt Elvira's hand pressing firmly on her back in the darkness as she repeated "You'll have mistress and child in me."
It was a strange household that they kept. Zerlina had never to her face called a woman of Elvira's station by her first name. The mistress, so far from ordering her maid back to work, kept her in bed while her body and then her spirit healed, until Zerlina herself was firm about the matter, and rose one morning to dress Elvira.
Elvira still wore white, despite her state. No man entered the house, and Zerlina feared it would end in ruin as in time repairs were neglected for this rule. She feared also that some man would carry Elvira off against her will, with no brother or father to protect her; but for the present, the people respected the lady in seclusion.
Claiming the simplicity of their dwelling, Elvira did a larger share of the work than many another lady would have considered proper. She was careful of her surroundings, and did not make additional labour for Zerlina; and she hired a wretched old woman in a cottage nearby to scrub, and took their linen to another woman. Beyond her basic light duties, such as cooking their meals and airing the beds, Zerlina found that she could choose or leave some tasks as she pleased. It pleased her to robe Elvira and dress her hair.
Zerlina went to market once a week, and sometimes saw Masetto there. She thought he might beg her to come home, but he only looked at her, piteous and angry at once. She crossed to the another stall without meeting his eyes, and told herself she had always known how to manage Masetto, even without caresses.
Stranger still were the night when after she undressed her mistress, Elvira reached for her, and they exchanged kisses and soft words, and Zerlina stayed with her in the big bed all night. Strangest to say that some other days Elvira came to her servant's bedroom in the morning, and kissed Zerlina awake.
In contento ed allegria Notte e dì vogliam passar.