• Joanna Seldon


    Death in Belmont

    It was the happiest moment of my life.  As the moonlight lay on the bank of a summer garden, I was the moon also.  I could feel the radiance spill over – my beauty, my happiness.  Our love.  The moonlight lay on the bank, and upon us.  I lay in Lorenzo’s arms.

    ‘Look,’ he said.  ‘Look, Jessica, at the stars.  The sky’s like a pavement studded with gold…’  He kissed the top of my head and murmured, ‘Patines of bright gold…’

    He says such exquisite things, my husband.  My brand new husband, bright and shiny as a star or a ducat.  I need to be bright myself, and I’m trying to learn fast, so I can sound clever like his circle of friends.  Father was forever droning old stories into my ear, but I need to forget them now – the Bible stories.  Father never favoured those which stir the soul – Jacob toiling seven years for Rachel, and then seven years again when he lifted the veil to find Leah; Jael luring Sisera into her tent with milk and then hammering a nail into his forehead; all those tales of David – slayer of Goliath, beloved friend of Jonathan, a harpist with almost magical powers, the king who stole another man’s wife…  No, Father would always seek out the most obscure story possible - like the one about Jacob’s breeding tricks with his uncle Laban’s sheep.

    I’ve been concentrating instead on the characters my husband and his friends know so well – heroes who breach the underworld, sorceresses, monsters of land and sea, desperate lovers.  So our moment of moonlit intimacy started with a tale of Troy.  We outstripped each other with comparisons between ourselves and the great lovers – Troilus and Cressida, Dido and Aeneas.  But, as I’m learning more about these strange people and their even stranger gods, I know we need to take care.  It augurs ill that we chose those doomed to die young.

    ‘Jessica, I felt you shudder.  What’s troubling you?’

    I had to think quickly.  Lorenzo must never know that I sometimes feel anxious and sad.  And my cue came instantly.  A lute started to sing into the still summer night.  It made me feel more downcast than ever, for it heralded, I was certain, the return to Belmont of its mistress.

    I buried my face into Lorenzo’s neck.  It smelt of sweat and cloves.  ‘It’s strange… but beautiful music always makes me feel rather unhappy.’

    ‘That’s because your spirits are alerted.’  He tickled my ear.  ‘I know – I’ve married a woman whose heart is as finely stringed as that lute.’  And then he bent over and kissed my ear.  I felt his lips against the jewel he gave me in exchange for a few of Father’s ducats.

    Lord, it was sheer delight stealing those ducats.  That was possibly the second great evening of my life.  I pretended I was ashamed to be dressed up as a boy, but then I looked down from my window to see my beloved waiting for me – with him Salarino (or was it Salanio?), one half of Venice’s prize pair of gossips, and that braggadocio whom I hate, Gratiano.  And I knew that all three men were dazzled by the sight of me, jacket tightly stretched over my breasts, the breeches exposing as never before the shapeliness of my legs, the little chestnut-brown boots creating a throb of danger.  The sensation was all the more delicious as to dress as the other sex is forbidden by my father’s God.  Lorenzo must have thought I looked good enough to eat, calling up to me something about ‘garnish’.  Then I threw down the casket of family jewels.

    I don’t remember my mother.  When she died I was still very young.  I feel no guilt at selling her turquoise ring.  Was it hers, or was it one she gave to Father before they were married?  That was one of his stories, too – but I didn’t really listen very carefully to my father so I can’t always recall what he used to mumble about.  By St. Mark, though, I adored that little monkey – certainly worth the price of a turquoise ring.  He was so lively and clever and engaging.  Lord, we frolicked until dawn in Genoa, Lorenzo and I. 

    Since arriving at Belmont I’ve had to keep monkey in his cage, as he can be vicious: several times he’s tried to bite me, and Lorenzo says we should sell him, but I refuse.  How can I sell my little friend?  I call him Gobbo, after my old friend Launcelot, my father’s servant and the one ray of brightness in that prison-house.  Thank St. Anthony of Padua, patron of things lost, that Launcelot came back into my life as Bassanio’s servant here at Belmont.

    Privately, I refer to Bassanio as Mr. Portia.  Her husband?  More accurately, her steward.  I’ve registered the hard push of her thumb as she makes him turn her estate to glistering gold.  Why did my spirits droop when I hear the lute announce her return?  It is because, in my heart, her presence here reminds me that I don’t belong with these people.  I will always be the Jewess amongst these goyim.  No, I must stop using that word: let us call them Gentiles.  I’ve never had them spit on me, as they did to Father.  Launcelot even called me ‘most beautiful pagan’, which rather pleased me – but then he’s different from the others, because he’s low in the world’s eyes, like my race.  Don’t think in that way any longer, Jessica!  When I married my Lorenzo, I became one of the Christians.  He has saved my soul.  But I know I will always be on the outside peering in. 

    When I first met Portia I found her cold and supercilious.  She was making some effort, I could see, to make me feel welcome – but from habitual courtesy only, not from the heart.  She still frightens me.  And her maidservant Nerissa always makes a point of ignoring me.  She is well matched in her vile Gratiano.  He knows nothing.  After the trial I caught him boasting, ‘I learned a new name from that old Jew-dog in court.  Someone called Daniel.  Ever heard of him, Lorenzo?’  He hadn’t even heard of Daniel the judge.  What ignorance.

    But Lorenzo is different: he is witty and wise.  I’m not sure what he meant when he told me my spirits are alerted by music, but I know his words reflect the depth of his mind.  I do wonder why he associates with that band of friends.  They say the Jews are pre-occupied by money.  But money is all they seem to talk about in my new circle – Bassanio, Gratiano, Salanio and Salarino.  The one everybody buzzes around like flies over pork meat – Antonio – well of course his life turns on money and rich cargo: he is a merchant.  Father hated him because he lent out money gratis, which didn’t help the moneylenders who charge interest.  I find him pleasant enough, but also a rather pitiable man, who obviously has an eye on the pretty boys.

    My husband is a gentleman, of course, but an impoverished one.  We dislike the idea of him earning his keep, but he will need to.  We rejoiced that the court made Father leave half his estate to Lorenzo, but, knowing the stubborn strength of the man, I expect he will probably be a long time dying.

    And fortunately Portia and Nerissa took a long time that evening to reach the entrance to the house from the main gate.  They were walking, for they had embraced abstinence – so we were told – and resided in a monastery while their husbands supported Antonio in the court-room as he confronted Father.  But of course, as we learnt later, they were (like me on that other memorable evening) playing dressing-up games, disguising themselves as young lawyers.  They must have enjoyed that.  Portia will have relished turning the tables on Father.  ‘If thou dost shed one drop of Christian blood’ and so forth. I’m surprised my cunning father didn’t sense the trap as it prepared to tighten.

    I don’t know what to feel about my father.  Here in Belmont, far from the news on the Rialto, the stench of Venice back-streets drifts up the hill.  They hate my father; it is a pastime to poke fun at him.  It makes me uncomfortable, I must admit, even though I laugh along with everyone else at Gratiano’s impression of him.  He puts on a fool’s accent that is nothing like my father’s, staggers about the room waving his arms: ‘A Daniel come to judgment!’  Then he spits onto the marble floor.  My eyes keep returning to his goyish rheum spattered on clean, cold white.

    I wonder how my father is.  He has lost me – I expect his friend Tubal is even now saying Kaddish for me in the synagogue, but of course Father won’t be with him.  He was forced to become a Christian.  He has lost his daughter; he has lost his religion; he has lost his wealth.  My heart rebelled when he told me to stop up the casements of the house as if they were eyes or ears; my heart yearned for freedom when he sneered at the carnival revellers; my heart swelled with scorn when he told me he’d been dreaming of moneybags.  But now, when I think about him (and I often do – though Lorenzo must never guess it), I tremble with sorrow.  Yes, they were right to name him devil, for did he not try to cut a pound of flesh from around a man’s heart?  He was prepared to break the Sixth Commandment.  But he must be so lonely now.  He feels as everyone does.  We Jews – no, the Jews – are no different from the Gentiles.  As Father used to intone to me when he returned home with the still-damp spittle candying on his gabardine: ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?  If you tickle us, do we not laugh?  If you poison us, do we not die?’

    My father has been poisoned by his own hatred, and the hatred infused by others.  But, as I said, his will be a slow death.  The poison will work inside him for many years to come.  Yes, Lorenzo must make money.  While fortune smiles upon Bassanio in his choice of a rich wife, my husband finds that his Jewish heiress has nothing to offer for the time being.

    I am carrying Lorenzo’s child.  I haven’t yet told him this.

    I heard that Father wished me dead at his feet with the stolen jewels in my ear.  But I still look about in search of him whenever I dream about that cold, dark house on the Guidecca.

    We rose together, Lorenzo and I, from the slightly dampened grass, and stepped forward to greet the ladies.  From that moment, the patines of bright gold were extinguished.  The evening concluded in a silly joke between Portia, Bassanio, Nerissa and Gratiano – something about a ring that I couldn’t understand.  As when they mocked my father, I pretended to join in the laughter.  Gratiano, needless to say, had the last word.

    Hanging from my belt in that male disguise, a tiny knife flashes.  I keep the costume with me always, as a reminder of love.  From time to time I run my finger along the blade of the knife.  Though it is small, it is very sharp.

    We are still in Belmont.  Once Lorenzo has a plan, we will return to Venice.  I have a plan.  I continue to test the edge of the blade – carefully, so as not to cut myself.  If you prick us, do we not bleed?  As I do so, I close my eyes and think of Gratiano.