Donna Leon. About Face

(Commissario Brunetti — 18)

For Petra Reski-Lando and Lino Lando

Che ti par di quell’aspetto?

What do you think of that face?

Cosi fan tutte

— Mozart

1

He noticed the woman on their way to dinner. That is, as he and Paola paused in front of the window of a bookstore, and he was using the reflection to adjust his tie, Brunetti saw the woman’s reflection as she passed by, heading towards Campo San Barnaba arm in arm with an older man. He saw her from behind, the man on her left. Brunetti first noticed her hair, a blonde as light as Paola’s, braided into a smooth bun that sat low on the back of her head. By the time he turned around to get a better look, the couple had passed them and was nearing the bridge that led to San Barnaba.

Her coat — it might have been ermine, it might have been sable: Brunetti knew only that it was something more expensive than mink — fell to just above very fine ankles and shoes with a heel too high, really, to be worn on streets where patches of snow and ice still lay.

Brunetti recognized the man but failed to recall his name: the impression that came was the vague memory of wealth and importance. He was shorter and broader than the woman and he was more careful about avoiding the patches of ice. At the bottom of the bridge, the man took a sudden sidestep and braced his hand on the parapet. He stopped, and the woman’s momentum was arrested by the anchor of his arm. One foot still in the air, she began to pivot in the direction of the now motionless man and swung farther away from the still-curious Brunetti.

‘If you felt like it, Guido,’ Paola said from beside him, ‘you could get me the new biography of William James for my birthday.’

Brunetti looked away from the couple and followed the direction of his wife’s finger towards a thick book at the back of the window display.

‘I thought his name was Henry,’ he said, straight faced.

She yanked at his arm, pulling him closer. ‘Don’t play the fool with me, Guido Brunetti. You know who William James is.’ He nodded.

‘But why do you want a biography of the brother?’

‘I’m curious about the family and about anything that might have made him the way he was.’

Brunetti remembered that, more than two decades before, he had felt the same urgency about the newly met Paola: inquisitive about her family, her tastes, her friends, anything at all that could tell him more about this wondrous young woman whom some beneficent agency of fate had allowed him to bump into among the shelves of the university library. To Brunetti, this curiosity seemed a normal enough response to a warm and living person. But to feel it about a writer who had been dead for almost a century?

‘Why do you find him so fascinating?’ he asked, not for the first time. Hearing himself, Brunetti realized he sounded just like what her enthusiasm for Henry James had so often reduced him to being: a petulant, jealous husband.

She released his arm and stepped back, as if to get a better look at this man she found herself married to. ‘Because he understands things,’ she said.

‘Ah,’ Brunetti contented himself with saying. It seemed to him that this was the least that could be expected of a writer.

‘And because he makes us understand those things,’ she added.

He now suspected that the subject had been closed.

Paola must have decided they had spent more than enough time on this. ‘Come on. You know my father hates people to be late,’ she said.

They moved away from the bookstore. When they reached the bottom of the bridge, she stopped and glanced up at his face. ‘You know,’ she began. ‘You’re really very much like Henry James.’

Brunetti did not know whether to be flattered or offended. Over the years, fortunately, he had at least ceased to wonder, upon hearing the comparison, whether he needed to reconsider the foundations of their marriage.

‘You want to understand things, Guido. It’s probably why you’re a policeman.’ She looked thoughtful after saying this. ‘But you also want other people to understand those things.’ She turned away and continued up the bridge. Over her shoulder, she added, ‘Just as he did.’

Brunetti allowed her to reach the top of the bridge before calling after her, ‘Does that mean I’m really meant to be a writer, too?’ How nice it would be if she answered yes.

She dismissed the idea with a wave of her hand, then turned to say, ‘It makes you interesting to live with, though.’

Better than being a writer, Brunetti thought as he followed after her.

Brunetti glanced at his watch as Paola reached up to ring the bell beside the portone of her parents’ home. ‘All these years, and you don’t have a key?’ he asked.

‘Don’t be a goose,’ she said. ‘Of course I have a key. But this is formal, so it’s better to arrive like guests.’

‘Does that mean we have to behave like guests?’ Brunetti asked.

Whatever answer Paola might have given was cut off as the door was opened by a man neither of them recognized. He smiled and pulled the door fully open.

Paola thanked him and they started across the courtyard towards the steps that led to the palazzo. ‘No livery,’ Brunetti said in a shocked whisper. ‘No periwigs? My God, what’s the world coming to? Next thing you know, the servants will be eating at the high table, and then the silver will start to disappear. Where will it all end? With Luciana running after your father with a meat cleaver?’

Paola stopped in her tracks and turned to him, silent. She gave him a variation on the Look, her only recourse in his moments of verbal excess.

Si, tesoro?’ he asked in his sweetest voice.

‘Let’s stand here for a few moments, Guido, while you use up all of your humorous remarks about my parents’ place in society, and when you’ve calmed down, we’ll go upstairs and join the other guests, and you will behave like a reasonably civilized person at dinner. How does that sound to you?’

Brunetti nodded. ‘I like it, especially the part about “reasonably civilized”.’

Her smile was radiant, ‘I thought you would, dear.’ She started up the steps to the entrance to the main part of the palazzo, Brunetti one step behind.

Paola had accepted her father’s invitation some time before and explained to Brunetti that Conte Falier had said he wanted his son-in-law to meet a good friend of the Contessa.

Though Brunetti had come, over the years, to accept without question his mother-in-law’s love, he was never sure of just where he stood in the Conte’s estimation, whether he was viewed as a jumped-up peasant who had stolen in and made off with the affections of the Conte’s only child or a person of worth and ability. Brunetti accepted the fact that the Conte was entirely capable of believing both things simultaneously.

Another man whom neither of them recognized stood at the top of the steps and opened the door to the palazzo with a small bow, allowing its warmth to spill out towards them. Brunetti followed Paola inside.

The sound of voices came down the corridor from the main salone that looked across the Grand Canal. The man took their coats silently and opened the door of an illuminated closet. Glancing

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