Felice te, che puoi
vederla quando vuoi,
che la vesti il mattino,
che la sera la spogli, che le metti
gli spilloni, i merletti...
Le Nozze di Figaro, I.v
“Our Susanna, the maid to a great lady, eh? Hadn’t she any woman of her own?” Susanna’s uncle took a draft of his wine.
“Papi, you must have heard,” interjected her cousin. “You must. It is so romantic. Her guardian kept her locked up with just her old nurse, because -- it's the most shocking thing! -- he wanted to steal her fortune.” Barbarina’s eyes flashed with excitement as the words tumbled out. “But our count saw her and fell in love, and rescued her!
“Hmph. A pretty girl with sack of gold. What kind of wife is that for a grandé of the first rank? This is what we’ve been waiting so many years for him to marry?”
“Not at all!” Barbarina was indignant. “They say her mother was of an ancient family, and her father an exiled prince of Germany. She was to have been lady-in-waiting to our queen, by right of birth, only her guardian insisted she be kept secluded.”
Uncle Antonio expressed his disdain for that story with another swig of his wine. “If you believe that, you’ll also believe my grandfather was the Cid and my grandmother the Virgin herself.”
“Papi!” But as Barbarina’s store of gossip had run out, she had nothing with which to counter. She looked to Susanna, who could reasonably be expected to be both an ally and possessed of more details on the subject.
Susanna privately felt that a pretty girl with a sack of gold was probably all that any nobleman wanted, however much he made of his pure descent and ancient dignity, but she was the countess’s woman now, and expected to defend the honor of the mistress she had never met, however fictitious.
“You know our Count would never marry a lady who was not worthy to mix her blood with his.”
Uncle Antonio merely grunted again. “A secluded princess, eh? And now her husband whisks her off to the country without even her own maid. Well, if it’s true, I suppose she’ll be easy enough for you to manage, niece.”
“Uncle, you are too much the cynic.” But again, Susanna privately had to agree.
“I? No, I’m not cynic enough, when I let my pretty niece -- the daughter of my elder brother, God keep his soul, whose virtue he left in my charge -- run around in a bedchamber frequented by our noble Count. Don’t think I don’t know why you were given the honor of serving our new lady.”
Susanna frowned, but she couldn’t deny that, either. “I can take care of myself, Uncle. And,” she added, more for the benefit of the innocent Barbarina than because she really thought it was true, “I’m sure there will be less of that now that he’s married.”
“Hah.” Antonio finished his wine and set the cup down hard on the table.
Barbarina had been strangely silent through this turn of the conversation. Now she looked hard at Susanna. “Promise me, Susi, that when you have the countess’s ear you’ll get me a position in the castle?”
This was the first surprising thing Barbarina had said all evening. Susanna frowned. Her cousin was a romantic and naive 14, and the sort of fresh-faced, healthy beauty that would hardly go unnoticed by the Count. But she didn’t have to answer, because her uncle broke in.
“Absolutely not. Haven’t you been listening to a word I say? And who’s going to keep house here while I’m working and your cousin is off running attendance on my lady?”
“You’re trying to keep me shut up just like the poor Countess!” Barbarina’s voice was rising, as if this was an argument she had had before. “But I’m nearly a woman, now, and I’m going to make something of myself.”
“Hah.” Antonio dismissed it all with a wave and poured himself another cup of wine. “You?”
“And who’s going to find the money for my dowry, otherwise?” shot Barbarina. “You?”
This was not a side of her little cousin that Susanna was used to seeing. And it wasn’t good for an energetic girl to be cooped up with her own fantasies in the gardener’s hut all day. Better she should be with other women, and learn how the world worked. “Uncle,” she said. “You know that Barbarina’s too old to be idling about all day, and the money would be useful. And you can be sure I would look after her.” To her cousin, she added, “I’ll do what I can, I promise.”
“Can’t do anything if I forbid it,” warned Uncle Antonio, but Susanna caught Barbarina’s eye and mouthed her last words again. Barbarina nodded, perfect trust in her eyes. If nothing else, Susanna thought, a lifetime of managing her uncle and cousin would surely help her in managing her new mistress.
The count had married his bride and feasted his friends in Sevilla, and it was late enough, even for a summer night, when the outrider galloped up to announce that the master and mistress and their train were only an hour away. There was just time for the last of the preparation: lighting the torches, laying out the wine, and calling the peasants and servants together to be ready to greet their new lady.
Susanna was giving the children their flowers and impressing upon them that they must wait until they could see the Countess to begin scattering the petals in her path when she felt a pinch on her arm. Somehow, Barbarina had persuaded her father to be allowed to distribute the roses and greenery with which the castle servants would greet their new mistress.
“Why aren’t you with your father?” Susanna hissed. “I can’t look after you right now, Barbarina.”
Barbarina tossed her head. “Don’t forget your promise, Susi.”
“If you want to help, then why don’t you take charge of these.” Susanna gestured to little Joaquito and Maricita, who were following this mysterious and therefore intriguing adult conservation with interest.
Barbarina’s face lit up. “Can I?” Without waiting for her cousin’s confirmation, she began shepherding the children to the beginning of the avenue that led up to the castle. “Now I’ll show you where you can be ready as soon as my lady steps out of her carriage…”
With that responsibility safely in someone else’s hands, Susanna could turn her attention to finding a vantage place of her own. While the Count and new Countess were fêted in the hall, there would be much to do in seeing that her ladyship’s trunks were carried up and the bridal nightgown set out and the bathwater heated. But Susanna hardly wanted to be deprived of the first glimpse their new mistress. Just a glance, she told herself, and then she would be about her new duties.
Susanna had found a place close to the doors, and so she heard the shouts and saw the flurry of flowers before the wedding party came into view. The countess was tall—only a head shorter than her lord—but although she had put back her veil of gold lace, the edges still shadowed her face in the dimming light. The greatest impression Susanna had was of a panniered gown: seeming oceans of blue silk and gold brocade flashing in the torchlight, and waves of lace lapping up the stomacher to the breasts. Well, Susanna thought, as she made her curtsy and then slipped away, she had seen something worthwhile, since she was likely to be spending as much time tending such gowns as tending the woman inside them.
In my lady’s bedroom, the bustle was of a different kind. It was a delight to be the one giving orders for once: instructing the men where to put each trunk, scolding them when they were clumsy with the boxes, reminding the footman that he must make sure the kettles of boiling water were replaced as they cooled, so that my lady’s bath would be ready as soon as she retired, and taking charge of the jewel case herself. Susanna knew that she could assume this imperiousness only by virtue of being young and pretty and laughing while she lectured them, but that hardly lessened the enjoyment or the excitement of it all.
She was keeping one ear to the sounds rising from the front of the house, however, and all too soon the bridal song came closer. In time-honored tradition, the women of the castle were escorting their countess up to her bridal bed.
All hail the gracious bride
The blushing maiden fair!
Take up the garlands now
Hail her on every side
“Out! Out!” Susanna shooed the men to the servant’s door. “Never mind that you donkey – just put it down anywhere! Is the water hot? Yes? Good. Now out!”
Bring forth the marriage bed
Lay out the cloth of gold
No finer bride’s been seen
Since Mother Mary wed!
It was the same song they sang for every bride, but this was the first time in Susanna's memory that cloth of gold might actually feature in the marriage bed.
Farewell her virgin brow!
Farewell her mother’s tears!
Blessed be in wife’s estate
Courage be with her now!
Some of the women began to clap and call blessings, but one strong, high voice continued.
Our Count’s a goodly man
He’ll do his duty well;
Barbarina. Of course Barbarina would not have heard or not have heeded the whispered counsel about which parts of the bridal song weren’t to be sung to the new Countess.
One night is all you’re bound—
Fortunately, old Marcellina had the same thought. There was the sound of a slap and a muffled cry, and, “Hush girl, not in front of her ladyship!”
A laugh, and a voice that could only be that of their new mistress. “No, no. It is very kind of you to welcome me so. You need not be afraid that I will be offended.”
“God bless your ladyship’s kindness!”
Someone took up the song again:
God bless the gracious bride
God bless our lady fair
Mary bless our lady’s womb
Hail her on every side.
Finally, Susanna judged that the procession had finally come close enough that she could fling the doors wide. She pressed herself into invisibility against the wall so that the countess could enter. More cries and cheers and she crossed the threshold, but then – as they would not have with an ordinary bride – the crowd melted away, and Susanna was left to close the door and meet her mistress.
Once again, she was in the wrong place: the Countess’s back was to the door. But now, closer, with so many candles shining and reflecting their light off the gilt and mirrors of the dressing room, Susanna could see through the fine lace of my lady’s veil: a high coiffure of chestnut curls pinned up with pearls, and a curved neck and shoulders sloping into the gold lace that edged her blue-and-gold gown à la française. The countess had raised a hand to her forehead and seemed to be abstracted in thought.
Susanna coughed lightly. “My lady…”
The countess turned, and the first sight Susanna saw of her face was the wisps of some other expression composing themselves into the serenity one expected from a great lady. She was more beautiful than anyone Susanna had ever seen – but that, Susanna told herself even as her heart skipped a beat – was only to be expected of a noble heiress who had been closeted and cosseted for the entirety of her existence. But although she had a girlishly round and smooth face and big girlish eyes set off by a fashionable velvet patch on one temple, her mien and carriage spoke a confidence and pride that was not at all girlish. In spite of herself, Susanna felt an odd surge of affection and pride at the thought that her closeted noble heiress might perhaps prove to be more than that after all.
“Ah, you must be my new woman.”
Susanna curtsied low. “Yes my lady. Susanna, if it please you.”
It shouldn’t have been strange to be so close to another woman. The girls always helped each other with laces and with primping and ribbons on holy days and festivals. Just this afternoon they had been jostling and urging each other to hurry up or be more nimble, giggling at accidental (and sometimes intentional) pinches or jabs as a string was pulled too tightly or an elbow knocked into someone’s rib. Bodies would blur into each other, and the tanned wrist you were tying a bangle around might as well be your own. Susanna had helped dress finer ladies, too: the occasional visiting grande dame whose woman fell sick or the master’s latest companionable actress whose maid turned up her nose at spending a week in the country. That was hurried in a different way: orders snapped in funny dialects and “are you a snail, girl?” and the offhand pinch or slap when you weren't quick enough. However those ladies’ hands announced that they had never worked a day, there was the steel of experience in their flesh, which never seemed any different from Susanna’s own—if she had the same quantities of paint and powder and padding, she liked to say to her cousin when she regaled her with tales of the castle.
Whatever gossip she might relay to needle her uncle, Susanna did not believe for the space of a prayer that God put any special virtue in high and ancient blood. The new countess was beautiful, to be sure, a vision whose complexion glowed like a little girl’s even though she was some years older than herself, but it would be no different to undress her than to help her cousin, or the old steward’s widow.
Even so, she found her heart beating harder and her hands trembling a little as she undid the clasps on the countess’s bracelets and her fingers brushed the inside of a wrist that seemed softer than anything she had ever felt. Better to let the rush of tasks take her mind away from her strange trepidation, she thought, and it could not hurt to show the countess her diligence.
But when whisked the jewels away and made a show of rummaging to put them precisely in the right box before spinning back to unclasp the next, the countess stopped her hand, surprisingly firm for someone whose shoulders seemed to promise a body so smooth that it might as well not have a bone or muscle in it. “You don’t need to rush so, Susanna.” Her voice was still light, musical, but there was a command behind the gentle words
Susanna felt her cheeks heat. She jerked her hand away and bobbed an apology. “Forgive me, my lady, I—”
She was still down when her mistress reached to pat her cheek. “I’m not angry. I’m glad that you are eager, and that you aren’t lazy. But I believe my lord has…much to see to before he comes to me.” The sound of revelry from below was, if anything, louder. Just like any other wedding on the estate indeed, Susanna thought, except that it was his own bride the Count would be seeking when the men finally finished their celebratory drinking.
“Yes my lady,” she said, hoping that nothing of that thought showed on her face.
The countess touched her again, almost a caress. “I think we shall do well together, Susanna,” she said. “You’re very quick, aren’t you.” She smiled at her own joke. “I’m sure I haven’t long until you’ll know my desires before I do.”
There was little one could say to that, so Susanna simply bobbed her head and smiled winningly. But the ghost of that touch stayed on her cheek as she forced herself to move slowly and calmly. Strange, how her mistress could already reach for her so easily when she herself felt so aware of their every contact. Or perhaps, not strange at all.
They said that no bride was in a hurry for her wedding night, and the other women had certainly given Susanna enough advice about calming down a skittish bride. Should be grateful, she told herself, that the countess showed no sign of bursting into tears or crying out for her nurse or easing her own anxiety by beating her maid. It was just as well for her not to be hurried along in removing and carefully setting aside such fine jewels and these clothes. But Susanna couldn’t help but feel that her fingers had to linger uncomfortably on her mistress’s body. There were so many little touches: her palm against the back of her ankle to ease off her slippers, where she felt the sudden solidity of the tendon under the silk and silken flesh-- like touching a kitten and noticing that it has bones beneath all the fur. Her wrists against her spine as she unlaced the gown and then the stays. Their whole bodies nearly touching when she had to reach up (even seated at her dressing table the new mistress certainly had aristocratic height) to unpin the ornaments and braids from her elaborate coiffure.
She was setting last the strand of pearls in their case when she, or perhaps her mistress, dislodged a folded paper from the table. The countess reached for it as it fluttered, but Susanna had a servant’s instincts and was there before her. “Shall I put this back with the pearls, my lady?”
Her mistress was looking very fixedly at the paper. “Give that to me.” When Susanna gave it to her, she made a show of unfolding and scanning the writing, then refolded the paper again, folded it once more over, and dropped it. “It’s nothing. Some trash that must have been packed in to pad the case for the journey. Throw it in the fire.”
Susanna hesitated. Great ladies rarely had need to lie, and her mistress was plainly not very good at it. She itched to unfold the letter – for it must be a letter. She had only caught a glimpse of it, a few words that had run over onto the back: ‘…ntly devoted servant, Cherubino.’
“Throw it in the fire, Susanna.”
Satisfy her curiosity or gain her mistress’s trust—no choice at all, there, for a smart girl. Susanna picked up the letter and walked quickly to the hearth. She set it well inside the flames, then put another log on top for good measure. This burnt letter would leave no fragments in the ashes to tell tales. Wiping her hands on her petticoat, she crossed back to the dressing table. Her mistress nodded at her. “Thank you, Susanna. I’ll have my bath now.”
Once she had filled the tub, Susanna was dismissed to tidy away the wedding clothes while her mistress soaked in the scented water. The respite gave her time to think, and to plan. Obviously the letter had held something embarrassing. Also obviously, it was gone to ash and might as well never have existed. A maid's claim to have glimpsed a letter that might have been a note from a lover would impress the gossips but would hardly hold up to the mistress's denial. Not that there was any reason why she should betray the countess- yet. The Count had had a thousand lovers and would doubtless have more – why not his wife too? If she even did have a lover. Still, it niggled at her that she had burned the note so readily. It was better to know something than to be surprised by it later, and in truth, she would better serve her mistress if she knew her secrets. Perhaps my lady would learn that in time. And in the meanwhile, she could at least hope that she had won a measure of favor by laying such an obvious secret to rest quickly and without question. But Susanna was still not quite satisfied with herself when the countess called for her.
“Do it in one braid, with three low poufs over the forehead and just a few curls on either side, I think.”
“Yes my lady.” The countess’s toilet set was ivory and gold, and it was delightful to run the brush over her scalp and through her hair.
Ever so slightly, almost unconsciously, her mistress leaned into the touch, and Susanna imagined, for a moment, that the thrill she felt was the answering one, that they were finally in equilibrium with each other. The impulse carried her away from her careful plans. “My lady,” she said as she set down the brush and began to arrange the hair – nothing too elaborate, of course, but a bride still must look charmingly undressed for the marriage bed. “I have a cousin.”
The moment broke. The countess pulled away and turned to look Susanna straight on. “I see. You think I owe a favor for a favor.” She could not quite maintain the haughty lightness of tone.
“No!” said Susanna without thinking. “No, my lady! I would keep any secret you like.” She was not sure whether her protest was an act or not. Without realizing it, she had taken her mistress’s hands. “Only I thought you would understand why I ask, my lady. I swear, I didn’t mean that I wanted a favor for my silence, I swear on my mother’s soul.”
The lightest of sighs from her mistress. Now they were falling into roles already: the cajoling servant and the long-suffering noble lady. Susanna dared to raise her eyes, and it was clear: the countess knew it as well.
“Her name is Barbarina, my lady, Antonio’s Barbarina, they call her. She’s a good girl, and I promised I’d help her get a place in the castle. And—“ Susanna adopted her most playful tone “--you can ask anyone, my lady, they’ll tell you I’m bold enough to have begged the favor on your wedding night, whether or not I thought I had anything to trade on for a favor.”
And tell me, Susanna,” – the countess’s tone was arch, now, and smiling, but she had not pulled her hands away. “Is your poor cousin destitute and desperate? Terrorized by her brute of a father? In danger of being sold to an ogre in marriage?”
That surprised Susanna into frankness. “No—my uncle is a fool and a drunkard,” she said, “but he’s no monster. He cares for her in his way, my lady, and for me. But he hasn’t a cent for her dowry, and isn’t like to get one.”
“And, my lord’s steward has not been able to find a place for her?”
“No, my lady, it’s not that. It’s that her father won’t allow it.” When the countess simply continued to look at her, Susanna went on. “He’s afraid for her virtue, my lady. Out of his eye. But if the word came from you, he wouldn’t dare refuse.”
Somehow, the Countess had slipped from having her hands held to grasping Susanna by writes. “And tell me, Susanna,” she said very softly. “Are her father’s fears part of his foolishness?”
“Barbarina’s a good girl, my lady, and a clever one--”
The countess’s grip tightened. “Answer me.”
“My lady, I shouldn’t speak of such things – not on your wedding night. No one will dare anything improper now that you are mistress.” Obligatory lies, ones that her mistress was probably too clever not to spot and perhaps now too angry to let pass as she should. Internally, Susanna castigated herself: not on her wedding night, you fool! Win her trust securely first, wait until she’s content and unsuspecting, and then beg a favor—that’s the first thing any servant knows. So much for the vaunted cleverness of Susanna.
“I may be a virgin, but I’m not a fool, Susanna. I know what I can expect tonight, and furthermore, I know that my love and fidelity for my husband are—” her voice caught in spite of herself “—unlikely to be reciprocated in the same degree. I know how men are, and I cannot rule him, but whether or not he goes to your cousin’s bed -- or even to yours -- I will have you loyal to me and not to him. Or I will find a woman who is.”
Susanna’s pulse was beating much faster now. This situation was no longer in her control, nor was it even one of the ones she had imagined. Jealousy over a husband, yes: everyone knows that danger from a mistress. But this? No one had warned her about this. In truth, she was not sure what it was. The countess’s nails dug into her forearms, but Susanna suppressed her instinct to struggle. “Please, my lady. You saw how I burnt that letter like you ordered without even trying to look. I’ll do anything for you, and never carry tales to anyone. And if you give my cousin a place, she’ll be as grateful as I am, my lady—we’ll both kiss the ground you walk on. And nothing the master does would change that.”
Her mistress released some of the pressure. With one fingertip, she began to trace over the marks her nails had left. Susanna shivered at the sensation. “Good girl. Now tell me what it is my lord is likely to do.”
Susanna’s was shocked in spite of herself. “My lady—I know what happens between men and women but I’ve never...”
The countess laughed. “I’m not asking about the details of the act, Susanna.” Then she increased the pressure again, a reminder of that surprisingly iron grip.
“My lady, you know the old law—his rights on our wedding night.”
The countess raised her eyebrows. “That barbarity?” she murmured.
Susanna pressed on, desperate to return this conversation to a more comfortable plane. “But truly my lady, they say he is very much in love with you, and—“ she dared to look up into her mistress’s eyes, hoping that her own face projected sincerity –“how could he not be?”
“If I want your flattery, Susanna, I’ll ask for it.”
The countess’s nails jabbed back into the tender flesh of her forearm—one of the only places where her skin approached the softness of my lady’s, Susanna thought irrationally. Her eyes began to smart.
“Please—“ she gasped. “It’s not flattery my lady, just what everyone says. They say he’ll let the law lapse now that he’s married, from love for you, and respect.”
The countess considered this. “I can ensure that, I think,” she said, almost to herself. “But when the novelty of marriage and a pretty bride tires, he’ll stray again. More discreetly, perhaps.” Her voice was very calm, as if they were discussing which of her jewels she would wear the next day.
“They don’t say that, my lady,” Susanna said carefully. “But—“ she gritted her teeth to say what she would never have imagined being so foolish as to say to her new mistress on her wedding night. “They – we – think it.”
Blessed release from those pinching nails as the countess said. “Very good. You see, Susanna: it isn’t so hard to tell me the truth. And has he pursued you? Is that why you were given this place?”
Susanna hung her head. “Yes, my lady. But I’ve never given him cause, I swear it!”
The countess leaned forward, and Susanna could feel the perfumed warmth of the bath rolling from her. Her robe had fallen open a little, and tendrils of the hair that Susanna had left undone slipped forward and caressed her arms, which her mistress still held, although lightly, now. “I told you that I’m not interested in that, Susanna. Tell me why.”
“Because I’m yours, my lady.” Cautiously, she bowed her head to her mistress’s lap, and kissed her hand. “Entirely yours.”
At the nape of her neck, she could feel the countess’s other hand and then, the pressure of her lips on her head. “Yes. I said you would learn quickly. Now be a good girl and finish my hair.”