As the guests began to take their chairs, David Franco felt that little flutter of anxiety that he experienced whenever he had to make a speech of any kind. Somewhere he had read that public speaking was one of the most commonplace fears, but that wasn't a lot of help right then. He glanced at his notes for the hundredth time, told himself that there was nothing to be nervous about, and straightened his tie again.
The room itself-the exhibit hall of the Newberry Library-had been nicely appointed for the event. Lighted display cases held a selection of the rare manuscripts from the library's collection, and a classical ensemble, playing antique instruments, had only just stop-ped playing. A computerized lectern was set up on a dais at the front of the hall.
"It's showtime," Dr. Armbruster, the matronly chief administrator, whispered in his ear; she was dressed in her usual gray skirt and jacket, but she had enlivened it for the occasion with a rhinestone brooch in the shape of an open book. Stepping out to the lectern, she welcomed everyone to the event. "And thanks, especially," she added, "for coming out on such a freezing day."
There was an appreciative murmur, followed by a bit of coughing and rustling as the thirty or forty people present settled into their chairs. Most of them were middle-aged or older-well-heeled and successful book lovers and friends of the library. The men were generally white-haired, and wore bow ties, Harris tweeds, and flannel pants; their wives were in pearls and carried Ferragamo handbags. This was Old Chicago money, from the Gold Coast and the suburbs of the North Shore, along with a smattering of academic types from Northwestern or Loyola. The profs were the ones in the rumpled corduroy trousers and jackets. Later, they'd be the first to hit the buffet line. David had learned never to stand between a professor and a free Swedish meatball.
"And on behalf of the Newberry," Dr. Armbruster was saying, "one of Chicago's landmarks since 1883, I want to thank you all for your continued support. Without your generosity, I don't know what we'd do. As you know, we are a private institution, and we rely upon our friends and associates to sustain the library in every way, from the acquisition of new materials to, well, just paying the electric bill."
An elderly wag in the front row waved a checkbook in the air, and there was some polite laughter.
"You can put that away for now," Dr. Armbruster said, then added with a laugh, "But keep it handy."
David shifted from one foot to the other, nervously awaiting his cue.
"I think most of you know David Franco, who's not only our youngest but one of our most industrious staff members. A summa cum laude graduate of Amherst College, David was the winner of a Fulbright Scholarship to Italy, where he studied Renaissance art and literature at the Villa I Tatti. Recently, he completed his doctorate at our own University of Chicago, and all this," she said, turning toward David, "before the age of what? Thirty?"
Blushing fiercely, David said, "Not quite. I turned thirty-one last Friday."
"Oh, well, in that case," Dr. Armbruster said, turning back toward the audience, "you'd better get a move on."
There was a welcome wave of laughter.
"But as you can see," she continued, "when we received, as an anonymous gift, the 1534 copy of Dante's Divine Comedy, printed in Florence, we knew there was only one person to hand it over to. David has supervised its physical restoration-you would never guess what its binding looked like when we first acquired it-but has also entered its entire text, and its many illustrations, into our digital archive. That way, it can become available to scholars and researchers the world over. Today, he's going to show us some of the most beautiful and intriguing images from the book, and also, I think," she said, glancing encouragingly at David, "take us on a brief tour of the poem's nature imagery?"
David nodded, his stomach doing a quick backflip, as Dr. Armbruster stepped away from the microphone. "David, it's all yours."
There was a round of subdued applause as he tilted the microphone higher, spread his papers on the lectern, took a sip from the water glass that had been left for him, and thanked everyone, again, for coming. His voice came out strained and high. Then he said something about the freezing weather outside, before remembering that his boss had already commented on that, too. He looked out at the room of expectant faces, cleared his throat, and decided to cut the small talk and just launch into his lecture.
As he did so, the lights went down, and a screen was lowered to his right.
"Dante, as you might know, had originally titled his book The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, A Florentine by birth but not in character. The title Divine Comedy only came later, when the book became regarded as a masterpiece. It's a work that can be approached in a thousand different ways, and over the centuries it has been," he said, his voice gaining strength once he was on firm and familiar ground. "But what we're going to focus on today is the use of natural imagery in the poem. And this Florentine edition which was recently donated to the Newberry collection-and which I think most of you have now seen in the central display case-is a particularly good way to do that."
He touched a button on the lectern's electronic panel and the first image-an etching of a deep forest, with a lone figure, head bent, entering a narrow path-appeared on the screen. "'In the middle of the journey of our life,'" he recited from memory, "'I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost.'" Looking up, he said, "With the possible exception of 'Jack and Jill went up the hill,' there is probably no line of poetry more famous and easily identifiable than that. And you will notice that right here, at the very start of the epic that is to follow, we have a glimpse of the natural world that is both realistic-Dante spends a terrible night in that wood-and metaphorical."
Turning to the etching, he elaborated on several of its most salient features, including the animals that animated its border-a leopard with a spotted coat, a lion, and a skulking wolf with distended jaws. "Confronted by these creatures, Dante pretty much turns tail and runs, until he bumps into a figure-who turns out of course to be the Roman poet Virgil-who offers to guide him 'through an eternal place where thou shalt hear the hopeless shrieks, shalt see the ancient spirits in pain so that each calls for a second death.'"
A new image flashed on the screen, of a wide river-Acheron with mobs of the dead huddled on its shores, and a shrouded Charon in the foreground, pointing with one bony finger at a long boat. It was a particularly well-done image and David noted several heads nodding with interest and a low hum of comments. He had thought there might be. This edition of the Divine Comedy was one of the most powerful he had ever seen, and he was making it his mission to find out who the illustrator had been. The title pages of the book had sustained such significant water and smoke damage that no names could be discerned. The book had also had to be intensively treated for mold, and many of the plates bore ineradicable green and blue spots the circumference of a pencil eraser.
But for David, such blemishes and signs of age only made the books and manuscripts he studied more precious and intriguing. The very fact that this book-nearly five hundred years old-had passed through so many unknown hands, and through so many different places, only lent it an air of mystery and importance. When he held it in his hands, he felt connected to that chain of unrecorded readers who had turned its pages before...perhaps in a palazzo in Tuscany, a garret in Paris, or a country seat in England. All he knew of the book's origins was that it had been donated to the Newberry by a local collector, who had wanted to be sure it would be properly restored, studied, and its treasures made available to all. David had felt honored to be entrusted with the task.
As he talked, he became not only more relaxed, but positively excited by the opportunity to share some of the discoveries he had made about the methodology that Dante had employed in his use of natural imagery. The poet often included animals in the text, but he also made regular use of the sun (a planet, according to the Ptolemaic system of the time) and the stars, the sea, the leaves of the trees, snow. Though the hall was dimly lighted, David did his best to maintain some eye contact with the audience as he elucidated these points, and midway through he noted a woman all in black, with a small black hat and a veil across her face, slip into the room and take a seat close to the door. The veil was what struck him. Who wore such things anymore, even in mourning? For a second he lost the thread of what he was saying and had to glance down at his notes to remember where he was.
"The meaning that Dante attaches to these natural elements changes, as we move from the Inferno to the Purgatorio to the Paradiso." He continued with his thesis, but his eye was drawn periodically to the mysterious woman in back, and for some reason it popped into his head that she might be the donor of the book, there to see what had become of it. As the images passed by on the screen to his right, he found himself explicating them as if he were talking chiefly to the woman concealed behind the veil. She remained completely still, her hands folded in her lap, her legs in black stockings, and it was all but impossible for him to figure out anything about her...most notably her age. There were moments he felt she was in her twenties, dressed up as if for a grim costume party, and other times when he suspected she was a more mature woman, perched primly, almost precariously, on the edge of the chair.
By the time he had shown his last illustration-a whirlwind of leaves, containing the Cumaean Sybil's prophecies-and wrapped up the lecture with Dante's closing invocation to "the Love that moves the sun and the other stars"-he was determined to meet her. But when the lights came up in the exhibit hall, a bunch of hands went up with questions.
"How will you go about determining the illustrator of this volume? Have you got any leads already?"
"Was Florence as prominent a publishing center as Pisa or Venice?"
And, from an eager academic in back, "What would you say about Ruskin's comment, concerning the flux of consciousness essential to the 'pathetic fallacy,' as it pertains to the Comedy?"
David did his best to field the queries, but he also knew that he'd been talking for over an hour, and that most of the audience would be eager to get up, stretch, and have another drink. In the lobby area just outside the exhibit hall, he could see waiters in black tie balancing silver trays of champagne glasses. The smell of hot hors d'oeuvres wafted in on the central heating.
When he finally stepped down from the dais, several members of the audience shook his hand, a couple of the older gentlemen clapped him on the back, and Dr. Armbruster beamed at him. He knew she'd been hoping he would hit one out of the park, and he sort of felt that he had. Apart from his initial anxiety, he hadn't missed a step.
But what he really wanted to do was find the lady in black, who had apparently escaped the exhibit hall already. In the lobby, long trestle tables had been set up with damask tablecloths and silver serving dishes. The profs were already lined up elbow patch to elbow patch, their little plates piled high.
But the lady in black was nowhere to be seen.
"David," Dr. Armbruster was saying, as she took him by the elbow and steered him toward an elegant, older couple holding their champagne flutes, "I don't know if you've met the Schillingers. Joseph is also an Amherst man."
"But way before your time," Schillinger said, shaking his hand with a firm grasp. He looked like a tall and ancient crane, with a beaked nose and white hair. "I quite enjoyed your talk."
"And I would love to be kept apprised of your work on the book. I lived in Europe for quite a while, and-"
"Joseph is being modest," Dr. Armbruster broke in. "He was our ambassador to Liechtenstein."
"And I started my own collection of Old Masters drawings. Still, I never saw anything quite like these. The renderings of the rings of Hell are especially macabre, to say the very least."
David never failed to be impressed at the credentials and the backgrounds of the people he met at the Newberry functions, and he did his best to stay focused and courteous to the Schillingers. The former ambassador even pressed his card on him and offered to assist his research in any way he could.
"When it comes to getting access to private archives and such," he said, "I still have some strings I can pull on the other side of the pond."
But the whole time they were talking, David kept one eye out for the lady in black; and when he could finally break away, he found Dr. Armbruster again and asked if she knew where she might have gone, or who it might have been.
"You say she came in midway through your talk?"
"Yes, and sat all the way in back."
"Oh, then I wouldn't have seen her. I was off supervising the food."
A waiter passed by, carrying a tray with one lone cheese puff left.
"I wonder if we'll have enough," she said, before excusing herself. "Those professors eat like locusts."
David shook a few more hands, fielded a few more casual questions, then, as the last guests filtered out, he slipped up a back staircase to his office-a cubbyhole crammed with books and papers-and hung his sport coat and tie on the back of the door. He kept them there for those rare occasions, like the lecture, when he had to dress up. Then he pulled on his coat and gloves and went out by a side door.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Medusa Amulet by Robert Masello. Copyright © 2011 by Robert Masello. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.