I am in my autumn years now, sitting quill in hand before a high, arched window in the library of my marble palazzo overlooking the Grand Canal, preparing to record the events that had driven me, as a virginal young Englishwoman of gentle birth, to seek an education in whoredom.
Almost four decades have elapsed since my fateful decision, following much deliberation and prayer, to pursue such a course, but that decision and its aftermath, which altered my life in ways unimaginable at the time, are branded indelibly into my memory.
The curtain opened on my tale on the eighteenth day of July in the year of our Lord 1626, when I still lived in London, where I had been born and reared. Through covert inquiries, I had ascertained that there was a visitor to that city, a Venetian nobleman and poet named Domenico Vitturi, who acted as a Pygmalion of sorts to young women from every corner of Europe who sought to improve their circumstances through the exalted form of prostitution for which Venice had long been notorious. Under his direction, the prospective courtesans were groomed in the social graces and such gentle pursuits as singing, dancing, gaming, and rhetoric, as well as in the mysteries of the bedchamber, in preparation for their introduction by him to aristocratic gentlemen who would pay handsomely for their company and their favors upon their arrival in Venice.
Signor Vitturi, who was said to be worth four million ducats—the equivalent of one million pounds sterling!—-assumed all costs pursuant to this endeavor. He paid for his apprentices' transportation to Venice, bought them lavish new wardrobes, provided houses, servants, food, even their own gondolas. Their every need was provided for until such time as they could support themselves in a queenly enough manner to suit him. It was not unusual, I learned, for his hand-picked, carefully trained courtesans, renowned far and wide for their beauty and accomplishments, to enjoy the company of princes, cardinals, even kings, and to amass extraordinary riches of their own. They bedecked themselves in the finest jewels and silks, and it was said that some even owned fully staffed palaces as grand and opulently furnished as those of their wealthiest benefactors.
I was astounded. Whores living in palaces?
Such was the depth of my ignorance in matters of a worldly nature. As the only child of learned parents, well tutored but cosseted on account of my sex, I had found myself, at one-and—twenty years of age, a bookish innocent. Although I prided myself on my erudition and my enlightened attitude toward affairs between the sexes, my knowledge of those affairs was largely theoretical.
So naive was I that it did not even occur to me to wonder what benefit Signor Vitturi might accrue from all this beneficence until it was explained to me that his chosen few were expected to keep themselves at his sexual disposal from the moment he took them under his wing. In this way, he maintained a virtual harem of some of the most extraordinary and cultivated beauties in Europe. Aside from occasional visits to his bed, however, no other recompense was expected of them. Their earnings were entirely theirs to keep.
That summer, Signor Vitturi had selected three candidates, two Italians and an Englishwoman, to travel with him to a secluded French castle called Chateau de la Grotte Cachee, where their education in courtisanerie was to take place. It was Vitturi's custom when visiting Grotte Cachee for this purpose, which he had done five times previously, to bring along a few companions. This time, one of them was to be the most influential, if controversial, man in England outside of the royal family: George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, erstwhile favorite of the recently deceased King James, and now chief minister to James's son, the new King Charles.
Desperate for a solution to an agonizing dilemma, the nature of which I was loath to admit openly for reasons that will become clear, I resolved to contrive an audience with Signor Vitturi in the hope that he would deem me worthy to partake in this venture. And so it was that I found myself, that damp and unseasonably chilly morning, being ushered by a liveried footman into the high-ceilinged, darkly paneled great chamber of York House on the Strand, where Vitturi was a guest of Buckingham.
The Venetian rose from his writing desk as I was presented, bowing with his hand upon his breast, but not before I caught sight of his face—the face I had been warned to expect, lest my countenance betray any hint of distaste. His forehead, cheek, and jaw on the right side were badly scarred, the flesh there gouged and puckered but well healed. These ghastly wounds appeared to extend to his chin and neck, but were mostly concealed in those regions by a narrow, trim beard of the type that was in fashion at that time, as well as by the ruff at his throat.
"Don Domenico." I executed as graceful a curtsy as I could manage, given my state of nervous excitation. "I thank you for agreeing to see me."
Vitturi was a tall man, and younger than I had expected, the unravaged side of his face being smooth-skinned and fine-boned; he wore a small gold hoop in the ear on that side. His eyes, which were the same deep brown as his shoulder-length hair, bespoke a perceptiveness that I found both appealing and unnerving.
"Are you chilled, Mistress Leeds?" he asked, nodding toward my tightly clasped, trembling hands. His Italian-accented voice was roughly soft, like the fur of a wolf, his manner courtly but distant.
"I . . . suppose I am."
If he knew that I was, in fact, trembling from nerves, and I suspect that he did, he gave no indication of it. Instead, he led me to a trio of stately, tall-backed chairs before a fireplace in which low flames sputtered and popped. Pulling one chair a bit closer to the fire, he gestured for me to sit.
From the corner of my eye as I arranged my skirts, I noticed his gaze shift from my face to my modest linen coif to my dress, which he surveyed from neck to hem. Although fashioned with a modishly short-waisted basque and full sleeves, it was made entirely of black crepe save for the white muslin cuffs and a plain, turned-down collar that fell from the throat in two long points over the bodice. The somber costume was a far cry from that of most Englishwomen, who were notorious throughout Europe for their uncovered heads and low-cut bodices.
In fact, Vitturi himself was attired entirely in black, including an overgown of lustrous matte satin worn open over his close-fitting doublet and breeches. The latter were less puffy and somewhat longer than those being worn in England at the time; as I recall, they extended over the knees. The overgown, with its togalike flap over the left shoulder that was, like the rest of his costume, peculiar to the patrician gentlemen of Venice, imparted an aura of archaic dignity; few Englishmen wore gowns as a matter of course anymore.
"Claret?" he asked, lifting a silver ewer from the elegant little black and gold lacquered table around which the three chairs were clustered.
I accepted with thanks, hoping the wine would soothe my nerves. No sooner had he filled two silver bowls than the footman reentered the room, bowed, and announced the arrival of a "Mademoiselle Elle." With a glance in my direction, he asked his master, "Shall I see if Mademoiselle would be amenable to returning at a more convenient time, signore?"
"Nay, show her in," Vitturi replied, explaining to me that he had requested the lady's presence at this meeting so that she might help in determining my suitability for "the undertaking in question."
"Elle makes her home at Chateau de la Grotte Cachee," he told me. "She assists me in the selection of promising young ladies and imparts a distaff perspective to their tutelage that I have found to be indispensible."
He rose again as a golden, statuesque beauty swept into the room with a whisper of rose-hued taffeta and a merry "Bon-jour. Pray pardon my lateness, Domenico. So this be your supplicant, eh? Upon my faith, but she is a pretty little thing."
"Mistress Hannah Leeds," Vitturi said, "may I present Mademoiselle Elle, who serves as abbess to my novices."
He fixed me with that dark, trenchant gaze, as if gauging my reaction to his likening of -courtesans-in—training to Brides of Christ. Schooling my expression, for in truth I did find the comparison a bit unseemly, I rose and greeted the luxuriously attired "abbess" with a smile and a curtsy. " 'Tis a pleasure to make your acquaintance, mademoiselle—or should I address you as Mother Elle?"
As quips went, it wasn't much—I was far too wrought up for genuine cleverness—but Elle laughed appreciatively as she returned my curtsy. " 'Elle' is fine all by itself—Sister Hannah," she said. "And the pleasure is mine, I assure you."
Elle was the most resplendent woman I had ever seen, with radiant blue eyes and a beguiling smile. Her hair, like pale amber spun into the finest silk, was smartly styled in a chignon flanked by twin masses of side curls. Her gown was cut in the French fashion, with a face-framing winged collar of starched point lace trimming a neckline so wide and deep as to reveal a breathtaking display of bosom, compressed by her stays into high, creamy-soft mounds. Pearls encircled her throat and dangled from her ears; her fingers and thumbs glittered with rings. An ivory fan hung from a golden girdle around her waist in the Continental style.
Vitturi motioned Elle into the third chair, poured her a bowl of claret, and fell into a contemplative silence as she chatted amiably about this and that without seeming to expect much input from either Vitturi or myself. I sensed, with much appreciation, that she was attempting to put me at ease. It worked—until I glanced toward the Venetian and found him studying me over the rim of his claret bowl. I quickly looked away, not because of his scars, for I had already learned to focus on the unblemished aspect of his face, but because of the intensity of his gaze. It felt as if he were peering right through my skin—or trying to.
When he did finally speak, he got right to the point. "I cannot help but wonder, Mistress Leeds, why a highborn Englishwoman such as yourself should wish to move to Venice and become a cortigiana."
The honest answer was that I had no desire at all to become a courtesan, nor any intent to pursue such an occupation. What I did wish—what I urgently needed—was to get close to the Duke of Buckingham as soon as possible, but my attempt to maneuver an introduction had failed miserably. As soon as he'd learned whose niece I was, he had adamantly refused to see me. Ah, but at Grotte Cachee, I would be just another of Domenico Vitturi's "novices." Buckingham's guard would be down. He wouldn't recognize me, having never met me in the flesh. Nor would he recognize the name "Leeds," which was not my true surname, but my grandmother's maiden name.
It was an imperfect plan, in that it required me to present myself as a candidate for whoredom, with all the degradation that was likely to entail, but the situation was dire, and it was the only viable plan at my disposal.
Of course, I could reveal none of this in response to Vitturi's query as to my motives. Instead, I delivered the little speech I had rehearsed over and over in my mind the night before, while I tossed and turned and fretted about what to say and how to say it during this crucial interview. "I find myself in a bit of a dilemma, signore. My mother met her maker in March, and—"
"Ah," Elle said, nodding toward my funereal gown, "I -suspected you might be in mourning. Either that, or a Calvinist. Or both, perchance?"
"Nay, I am—" Careful. "—most definitely not a Calvinist. When my mother passed on, I was left with very little to my name, save a dowry so that I might contract an advantageous marriage. I've a cousin who has assumed the role of my guardian and protector, and he has negotiated my betrothal to a widowed gentleman who is . . . well, somewhat older than I, and whereas I am certain he is a fine man, and would provide well for me—he is a baron with an excellent holding—I doubt very much that he would find me a suitable bride."
"Your father is no longer with us?" Elle asked.
"Nay, he succumbed to a tertian ague when I was an infant."
"And why is it," Vitturi said, "that you feel your betrothed would find you unsuitable? Is it because you are not a virgin?"
"He . . . he is not my betrothed. The union has yet to be formally contracted. And as for . . . the other, you appear to suffer under a misapprehension, signore. I am, in fact . . . That is, I have never . . ." I gestured vaguely, appalled to feel my face stinging. They must have thought me an utter ninny.
"Are you saying you are a virgin?" he asked.
"That is a virginal blush if ever I've seen one," Elle observed as she snapped open her fan. "What an intriguing state of affairs. 'Tisn't often that an untouched maiden petitions to be one of Signor Vitturi's novices. In fact, I cannot recall a single instance."
"If your maidenhood be intact," Vitturi said, "why do you feel that your not quite betrothed will find you an unsuitable bride?"
"The gentleman in question has seven children, all of them still quite young and rather unruly from a lack of governance in the year since their mother's death, and he seems to think that I would make an ideal stepmother for them. When I speak to him of my interest in the Greek and Roman poets, and ancient history and such, he is apt to chuckle and wave his hand and tell me that I shall have no more time for such idle pursuits once I am 'chasing after his brood of little devils.' He has even told me that I shall have to put away my lute, because by the time I tuck the children into their beds, I will almost certainly be too fatigued to—"
"You play the lute?" Vitturi asked.
"Aye, signore," I said, "and the harpsichord."
"Do you sing?"
"How well do you sing?"
"That would be for others to judge, I suppose."
With a weary little sigh, he said, "But these others are not here, are they? So I am asking you. How well do you sing?"
Excerpted from In the Garden of Sin by Louisa Burton. Copyright © 2009 by Louisa Burton. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.