Black and Brown
Donald J Plefka
There were a generous number of seats available on the train. Belle Fenton and her friend, Jennie Royce had met their friend, and sometimes guide, Friar Tom, at the train station and the three boarded together. They went aboard as early as possible in order to be seated in the third carriage hoping that the soot from the steam engine would have dissipated before entering the windows which they knew would be open to catch the air as the train moved through the hot countryside. As the train moved out of the station, the girls related the adventures of the last few days to Friar Tom ... but that is the saga of a different escapade. They also told him of the visit they had at their hotel from Signore Beleventi just before they left. He came to thank them for their part in the recovery of the bust of Pope Leo (the other story) and when he heard that they were about to leave Florence for Rome, he hastily phoned his sister and arranged for them to stay at her house.
Signore Beleventi had told the ladies that his sister, Flora Beleventi, unmarried and somewhat eccentric, lived near Arcibasilica Papale di San Giovanni in Laterano, more commonly known as the Basilica of St. John Lateran. It was their old family home, much too big for her but she was constantly inviting in guests she hardly knew, especially if they happened to be members of the clergy. He would be very concerned if it weren't for the presence of Dominick, a family servant and jack of all trades, who in regard to the security of the house and Flora, was more of a father to her.
Their traverse through Tuscany, Umbria and and Lazio was an interesting excursion with beautiful scenery although punctuated with many stops. The rail lines had been assembled from many short lines constructed from city to city and were neither direct nor fast. Their arrival in Rome was late but Dominick had anticipated that and had arranged for a motor car to bring them to the house. Friar Tom had declined the opportunity to stay in the luxury of the old home as he was expected at the Franciscan Friary. Belle and Jennie were soon at the house and introduced themselves to Flora Beleventi and Dominick who, managing to carry all their luggage, escorted them to their sumptuous rooms, each consisting of a sitting room and bedroom. Flora, and she insisted that Signorina Beleventi was too formal and that to them she was just Flora, followed along speaking incessantly of everything and nothing all at the same time.
These were the times of Pope Pius X and also very unsettled times between the Kingdom of Italy and the Catholic Church. This Pope, as did all the Popes of the era considered themselves to be prisoners in the Vatican. They insisted that they were not under the control of Italy but Italy claimed to be in political control of all of Rome. The Pope, however often traveled outside of the Vatican compound while the Italian government stayed out of it.
The girls visited the beautiful St John Lateran Basilica and the adjacent Baptistery. This, not St. Peters, is the Cathedral Church of Rome and the parish of the Pope since the Lateran Palace was given by Constantine to the Bishop of Rome in the early 300's and was the first church in Rome when Christianity was declared the official Roman Religion. During their stay, they visited many of the sights of Rome including the Trevi Fountain and some of the old Roman ruins. They didn't have far to go from the Beleventi home and in fact, a section of one of the Roman aqueducts formed one wall of the building. They did not visit St Peter's since the Vatican was in such turmoil with the government. Besides, they were anxious to return home and booked passage on the next available ship from Naples. This gave them only a few days to explore the city.
Flora had a formal dinner every evening and there were always guests that she considered important whether they were or not. The second evening she introduced Belle and Jennie to Monsignor Morgerini, another friend of Signore Beleventi who was visiting Rome from his parish in Torino. Belle noticed something about him that seemed, at least to her, to be very odd but decided to keep it to herself. Flora told the girls that he would be staying for several days. Of course, with the title of Monsignor, he was not just a priest, but a special priest who had been elevated to that position either by the Pope, or at least with his approval. Of course that made him very special to Flora and as such, a very welcome guest.
Jennie and Belle had hit it off very well with Dominick. Knowing that their visit had been arranged by Signore Beleventi was reason enough for him to know that they were the right kind of people but even more, Dominick obviously knew of what had happened in Florence. Apparently, he and Signore Beleventi were in contact on a regular basis. Belle found an opportunity to ask Dominick what he knew of the new guest, and was told, "Only that Signore Beleventi knew him and that the Monsignor had just contacted Signorina Beleventi to announce his visit. She, of course invited him to stay here." Belle said, "I feel there is something strange about him." To which Dominick replied, "I will look into it further but do not concern yourself, I will take care of things."
The following day, Belle and Jennie, made use of a couple of bicycles belonging to their host and ventured outside the city to visit the church of San Sebastiano and the catacombs associated with it. The church was small compared to the Lateran and Baroque in style. Only a small part of the catacombs were open to tourists but it was more than enough to get the feel of them, a feel they did not like. They were surprised to find that there were Roman Pagan burials there as well as Christian. The main difference besides the symbolism was that the Pagans had been cremated before burial while the Christians had not. When they returned to the house they were surprised as they reached the top of the stairs to find the Monsignor emerging from Jennie's room. Jennie asked if there was anything he wanted and, stammering a bit, he said he had mistaken it for his. Jennie immediately checked her belongings and found nothing amiss.
On another occasion, Belle went into the library hoping to find something light to read. The Monsignor was in the room carefully scrutinizing the paintings and various artifacts in the room. He was so intent in his inspections that he didn't notice her until she said, "Buon giorno Monsignor." Startled, he turned to her and returned the greeting and she asked, "Have you found anything interesting?" The priest replied, "Yes, they have such beautiful things but not much to interest a priest." She asked if he had seen the book on the history of Rome and pointed it out to him to which he replied that such things do not interest him much but at the same time he reached for the volume but strangely, picked up the one next to it, looked at a few pages, then put it back in place. It was another oddity that Belle filed away in her mind.
But that was not all that was odd in this house. On one occasion as Belle, Jennie and Flora were conversing in the parlor, Dominick had served wine and went back to the kitchen which was to the left of the parlor. It was just a short time later that he came down the stairs from the upper rooms which were to their right. Belle had not seen him go up and thought she had seen a ghost or that Dominick had a twin. Belle asked Flora if there were service stairs to the upper rooms and was told that there was only the formal staircase that could be seen from where they were sitting. Belle just assumed that she had been so emerged in conversation that both time and events had eluded her.
Part of the next day was invested in viewing some of the old Roman ruins. The problem was that the city had been built up around and sometimes over them. The government was just beginning to take an interest in preserving them again. There was talk of making the interior of the Coliseum accessible to tourists and of continuing the excavation the floor which had been started and restarted several times but never finished. When they returned to the house the Monsignor was not there. The housekeeper said he had gone on an "errand" and was expected back for dinner. After Belle and Jennie had gone to their respective rooms to rest after their daily excursion, Belle couldn't help thinking about the priest. This was the first time she had known him to leave the house, seemingly strange for someone who claimed to be "visiting" the city. She also was still upset that he had been in Jennie's room and wondered if he had been in hers.
After some thought, she decided to "accidently" enter his room and so she did just that. She found nothing that was out of the ordinary. As a matter of fact, she thought it odd that she found nothing of his, items that she would assume a priest would have laying out such as beads or a prayer book. She was about to look into one of his two trunks when she heard footsteps and then voices in the hallway. It was Jennie greeting Monsignor Morgerini! Belle was petrified, having nowhere to hide. Just then a chill ran up her spine as she felt a hand on her shoulder. She suppressed a gasp and turned to see Dominick with a finger up to his lips. He said, in a whisper, "This way", and as he turned she noticed an open panel in the wall. She quickly and quietly followed him into a narrow dark passageway and he silently closed the panel behind them. They heard the door of the room open and close as they stood breathlessly while their eyes became accustomed to the darkness. There was one dim light at the end of the passage and they quietly made their way toward it. The light marked the head of a stairway which they descended. At the bottom Dominick peered through a peep hole and then opened another panel. Belle found herself in the narrow room between the dining room and the kitchen. The panel through which they had entered was actually a section of shelving that held table cloths and napkins. The two went into the unoccupied dinning room and it wasn't until then that they spoke.
Dominick, smiling, said, "You have been introduced to one of the secretes of the house." Belle could only say, "Yes ... it ... and you saved my life!" Her savior replied, "If you had taken my suggestion and left things to me your life would not have needed saving." She said, "I am sure you are right but I just felt that something was terribly wrong with that priest and I needed to find out what it was." Dominick assured her that she was right, if that indeed was assurance at all. He also said that there would be an end to it all very shortly. It wasn't long after that that a carriage arrived at the door and its driver asked for Monsignor Morgerini. When he had been summoned, the two went up to his room to bring down the trunks. Belle whispered to Dominick, "He will get away ... I am sure he has something in those trunks." Dominick replied equally as softly, "Yes, but do not fear, all is well." At that he went to the window and looked out into the street, then repeated, "Yes, all is well."
Flora Beleventi was there to see her guest off and Dominick went to open the door for him. When he did there were four men standing just outside. Three were in poliziotti uniforms and the other in civilian clothes. The plain clothes inspector, with a broad smile on his face, greeted the priest and his driver with a hearty, "Well ... the Albani Brothers ... it is so good to find you here! I am so glad to have been invited here by my friend Dominick."
At that point, the policemen restrained the two and the inspector opened the trunks to find small paintings, silverware and a number of statuettes which Belle recognized as belonging in the house. As the two culprits were led away, the inspector was introduced to Belle and to Jennie who by that time had come to see what the commotion was all about. The inspector asked Belle, "I understand that you thought there was something wrong as soon as you saw Albini. What made you suspicious?" Belle said, "Maybe only a woman would have noticed, but he was wearing brown shoes and the rest of his attire was black." "Yes indeed." was the reply and the inspector continued, "These two have been petty thieves all their lives and not very bright. They can't even read and I am surprised that they attempted such as this." He continued, addressing Dominick, "Thank you for alerting us so we would watch for the wagon to arrive. We have been trying to find those two for months." At that point, the inspector took his leave.
At dinner that evening, the talk was all of the Albani brothers and the somewhat embarrassed Flora Beleventi apologized for exposing the ladies to people such as them. But in retrospect, they thought that she rather enjoyed the adventure of it all. Flora, turning to Belle, said, "I understand that you were introduced to one of our secrete stairways." and at Belle's smile, she continued, "When you asked about the existence of service stairs, I did not intend to deceive you but I don't considers those passageways as being 'proper' stairs as I never use them. There are others in the house and even one that leads down to the underground tunnels that honeycomb the city. Dominick, of course, knows and uses them all when it is convenient for him." Dominick revealed that after Belle initially had told him of her uncertainty about the so called monsignor, he contacted signore Beleventi who, in turn, made a call to Turin and spoke to his friend Monsignior Morgerini at his parish there. Since he was obviously not in Rome, the one who was in Rome obviously was an impostor. It was then that the police were notified and the decision was made not to apprehend the impostor until he could be caught ... as the Americans say, "red handed" with the "goods".
They all agreed that Albani may have gotten away with it if he had stolen black shoes to go with his stolen black cassock.
© Donald J Plefka April 13, 2010