How an Emperor Helped Lorenzo Da Ponte Get to America

There was one foreigner come aboard. Navigating by starlight, you might say. Only a hard paper box cocked under one arm, the other hand clutching the damnedest cane I ever saw. Worth his passage by itself, I’d say, though of course I didn’t let on at first. The head looked to be solid gold. He treated it with such landlubberly tenderness that I knew right off this must have been his first time at sea, else he would have stowed it with his other valuables – not that he had much, as I was to find out – so that it wouldn’t get ruinous salty when we run into some rough water. Made me suspicious, like he wasn’t quite respectable. Respectable passengers on my ship stow their goods below and never wear their fancy duds on deck once we leave sight of land and it commences to blow. But this foreign fellow was different. He wore this one outfit every day, clean but mended all over and kind of old.

But it wasn’t just the stick or the clothes or his gear that made me take notice. And it wasn’t his scared, uneasy look. The quick reason was that he wasn’t on the passenger list. The agent had informed me of only nine passengers. There was a liquor merchant, a widow and her dead husband – he came in a box stowed in the hold – and half a dozen regular gents who make this crossing twice a year to take a sounding of their investments. But there was no poet on the list. That’s what he told me he was, a poet.

“Well, Mr. Italiano,” I said. I forget his name now, but whenever he came on deck afterwards, I always called him Mr. Italiano because of the raggedy, female-like English he talked in. “Well, Mr. Italiano, how do you expect to find quarters aboard when I don’t have you down on my manifest, hey?” He bowed, looked me right in the eye. He said he hadn’t time to bespeak his passage from the agent. Said he had decided quickly to go to America because there was no opportunity for good poets in Europe now, especially in England, and he would take his chances in the new world. I don’t recollect if I believed him. He didn’t look like the kind of fellow who took many chances, only the right ones. I never knew anybody crossed the Atlantic on a whim unless he was a fool. And this fellow was no fool, though he must have thought I was, as you’ll learn.

“You can’t sail without the fare,” I says. “I’m not running a fugitive ship. If you have spite against England you’ll have to settle it ashore. If not, it’ll cost you forty guineas.” He puts down his box and then glances about for a secure place for that stick of his. He leans it against the taffrail, then fetches about in the box and takes out what appears to be a letter or some official-looking document. It had a fancy ribbon on it and was written pretty.

“Look here,” he says, as if he’s about to recite something. “This is a proclamation from your President.”

And sure enough, he commences to read, like one of those actors in a play.

“To whom it may concern and greetings: The bearer of this is an honourable man, a poet and esteemed gentleman, inured to the comforts, delights and privileges rightfully bestowed on his person by gracious majesties in sundry European courts. I shall consider myself deeply obliged if you show him all the courtesy and respect due a man of his extraordinary parts. Yours, Sir Thomas Jefferson, President of America.”

He looked confidently at me, as if expecting I would fall at his feet and beg him take my cabin. But I came upwind of him and hit him broadside.

“And what am I supposed to think of that?” I say. “Thom Jefferson can heave full sail across his own seas, but I’m the President of this ship!”

“This is your own President!” yammers Mr. Italiano, waving the document, making sure I could see the seal and ribbon.

“Even the President needs forty guineas to take passage, my friend.”

I reckon that if President Jefferson himself ever did board the Columbia I would carry him for free, just for the honour of the thing, you understand. But this Italiano fellow riled me, so confident was he that I could be so easily gulled. He had better learn that documents of this sort – “oblige me and bow, etc.” – may work in Europe, but they don’t amount to a skiff’s ballast over here. I expect Mr. Italiano will find that out soon enough.

Mr. Italiano shook his head and muttered something in his native lingo. Then he fetches up another letter with more pretty writing. “This is from the Emperor,” he says. “What emperor?” I say.

“Joseph,” he says, like I had done him some grievous wrong. “His Majesty, Sovereign Ruler of Austria and the Holy Roman Empire.”

“Ah,” I says. “That emperor! Forty guineas!” Still another letter bobs up, from some duke or other, commending Mr. Italiano to my good will.

“Forty guineas,” I say.

Italiano was working up a sweat now, and I’ll admit I was beginning to enjoy his discomfort.

“I suppose you’ve tried all this on Mr. Priestly,” – he was the agent – ” It didn’t work with him, either.”

“Captain,” said Italiano. “I regret that men of such high repute command so little respect from men such as you. I must get to America, but I will not grovel. I haven’t got forty guineas.”

“What have you got?” I said. I had already decided to put him off, but I was having fun watching him squirm. I hate these foreigners who lack humbleness and think they’re better than us, especially fellows like this who want to pay with their useless education instead of with good hard cash. Just then my eyes went to the taffrail where Mr. Italiano had reposed his walking stick. The fellow must have seen me looking at it because he spoke right out: “I cannot part with that.”

“That’s hardly worth forty guineas,” I said, shrewdly.

He stood quiet, fixing his eyes on the rigging. “Well,” I said. “What’s it to be? Either you’ve got forty guineas worth of goods or it’s England for you.”

Italiano snorted in disgust, shook his head and reached inside his coat. Withdrawing a faded green purse, he opened it and counted out six coins in his palm.

“I can spare only these,” he says. An ill assortment of Austrian, French and English pieces, they were. I suspect he was trying to confuse me with their different values. I sensed that he had more real money about him and told him so.

“What little I have is for America,” he says. “I need to live, to start a business if need be. These you may have.”

“That’s white of you, Mr. Italiano. Give them to Sir Thomas when you see him. What else you got?”

Into that paper box again. This time he takes out a couple of books, holds them up, looks at me. I look back at him, say nothing. He puts them back, scrabbles around, brings out a handkerchief folded over. It looks like pure lace, all fancy work around the edges. I remember seeing one like that on some English milord who made a crossing several years ago. Brought six travelling cases aboard, all stowed in his cabin, so I don’t know where he could have slept. But that was his pleasure, I’d say, since he paid his fare and didn’t try to foist some flotsam on me like Mr. Italiano here.

He begins to unfold the handkerchief and holds up a medal, not real gold, but with a nice red and green ribbon.

“This is from the Emperor himself,” he says. “A testimonial to my poetic gifts.”

I take a good gander at it but it doesn’t look like it’s worth forty guineas so I give it back. “I guess it’s England for you, my man,” I say.

“Listen,” he says. “I won’t be humiliated. I am a true poet. Unused to this kind of haggling, I see now that you have your own code. If I’m to thrive in my new life I’ll have to learn it and live by it.”

“There’s no ‘code,’ as you call it,” I say. “Pay as you go. It’s forty guineas and no haggling.”

I had just about had my fill of Mr. Italiano and was about to ask the mate to put him off when he plunges into his box again and fetches up a red case. At first I think he’s trying to bribe me with a box of fine segars, seeing him caressing the case, like it was a pet.

“This is my final treasure,” he says. “My only tangible claim that the world once acknowledged me as a great poet.”

“It had better be worth forty guineas,” I say. ” ‘0 Tempora! 0 Mores!’ ” he says, shaking his head.

He holds the case like he was about to present me with a choice segar, like I said. But it turns out that when he raises the lid all I see is half a dozen tiny spoons staring back at me.

“The Emperor Joseph, may he rest in peace, personally presented me with these,” he says.

I guess he must have seen my sour expression because he quickly adds, “Solid silver.”

Now I didn’t want to appear too anxious to accept his offer. I wasn’t so sure at this point that the spoons were worth the price of passage. They were too small to be of any use, unless you were only three feet tall and had a head the size of an apple. On the other hand, they may have a certain draw for Mr. Peale’s collection of curiosities. In the next instant I calculated that the spoons would bring forty or fifty guineas in England, maybe more in America.

“Well,” I says. “How do I know they’re real silver?”

“Do you doubt a personal gift from the Emperor would be anything less?”

“I never knew the Emperor,” I says. “And how can I be sure that the Emperor himself knew they were silver?”

Oh, I am a sly one, I am! No landlubber could steal upwind of me!

Just then Mr. Italiano slams down the lid and makes to go.

“You are a caffone,” he says.

“Tell you what,” I say – I knew I had him – “I’ll give you passage in exchange for these spoons, but you’re a few guineas short. Throw in that walking stick and I’ll settle the difference with the owners.”

I see Mr. Italiano widen his eyes and turn down his mouth.

“I cannot do that,” he says. “This was given to me by a man whose genius was very nearly equal to my own. His gratitude and affection for me sprang from motives of respect that you could not possibly appreciate.”

“Take it or leave it,” I say. “I will leave it,” he says. “There must be at least one ship bound for America with no pirates at the helm.”

“No use getting mad,” I say. “Business is business. I’ll give you passage for the spoons. You can keep your stick, but if you want victuals it’ll cost you extra.”

Here Mr. Italiano just about gives up. I watch as he reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out his purse. He opens it, grabs my hand, and empties the purse into it. Then he shakes the purse once or twice to show me his money’s all gone.

“You’ve ruined me!” he says.

“Here,” I says, giving him an Austrian coin. “I’m not a mercinous fellow. Welcome aboard!”

*Lorenzo Da Ponte was the librettist for Mozart’s three classic comic operas, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così Fan tutte.

Edward Fiorelli lives in New York. In 2003, his story won First Prize in Fiction in the second annual contest of the Association of Italian Canadian Writers.

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 4.

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