Waiting for Don Juan
Il signóre Maglian was in the harbourside cafe drinking his espresso, waiting for his friends to return. The harbourmaster sat facing the sea. He could smell a storm coming in: the breeze was picking up; trees on the seafront were whispering it would be a bad summer squall; and fishing nets on the quayside were shifting slightly, nodding in agreement. Allóra. He would not see his English friends today, after all.
He rolled a cigarette, tapped it on the back of his hand, before striking a match and lighting up. I signori would be sure to stay on with their friend and wait for the storm to pass. It was a shame. He had wanted to see the Don Juan round the headland in full sail. She had left Lerici on the first of the month and it had been perfect sailing weather. La bella barca had flown, once she’d cleared the harbour. Maglian had watched her leave, remembering the trips he had taken in her as far as Massa, often in rough seas. I signori had laughed at Maglian’s nerves, and scoffed at him saying they would not be able to swim to shore in such weather. Precisely why he had not bothered to learn to swim, il signóre had said, there was no point when it was you against the might of the sea.
The Don Juan was an unorthodox craft. Il signóre had called her “a perfect plaything for the summer.” And she was certainly that. Maglian stood up and walked along the quay, drawing on his cigarette. Captain Roberts had designed her, she was supposed to be a down-sized American schooner, and then together with il signóre Williams, he had improved her again. Much more sail, a false stern, an extended bowsprit and prow, and more pig iron ballast. Hardly any deck on her at all. Some of the fishermen thought she was “crank” but a beauty nonetheless. Maglian simply remembered thinking at the time that there was more canvas on her than he’d seen hanging from the line on wash-day in Lerici. And the boat was fast. She beat the felluccas as if they were at anchor. Il signóre said she passed them “as a comet might pass the dullest planets of the heavens.”
Maglian walked the rocks in the harbour, still half-hoping to see the sails of the Don Juan. The fishing boats were coming back in, only a few of the ones who went further afield were still out there now. He prayed they would make it home before the storm was full-blown. Even here in the harbour, the boats were rocking as the sea began to boil up outside the bay. The men were securing them as best they could, fastening them down for the squalls to come. One more cigarette, Maglian thought, and I will head home. There is nothing more for me to do here. They will not come home today.
They found the bodies washed up on the shore near Spezia ten days later, Maglian tells the fishermen in the cafe. Someone on the shore thought he saw the Don Juan hurtling home at full-sail, when the storm crossed the bay near Spezia. They should have cut the top-sails but they were trying to beat it home. A violent squall whipped up from the west and they couldn’t outrun it. The wind buffeted the eye-witness on the cliffs and he had to shield his eyes from its force. When he looked back, he could no longer see the Don Juan.
One of the fishermen asks if it was definitely them, if there was any sign of la bella barca. Maglian shakes his head, no, no boat, but it was them. They were identified from the clothes they were wearing and the authorities knew it was il signóre Shelley from the book of poetry in his pocket, a book of his friend’s poetry, il signóre Keats, who died last year in Roma.
The bodies were buried in the sand to comply with quarantine laws, and now il signóre Shelley is to be burned on the beach. Il signóre Trelawney is making up an iron casket for the body, and the locals are helping build a funeral pyre. It will be on the fifteenth, I think, says Maglian, and I will go to say goodbye to my friend.
Was it really the storm that killed them? one of the men, sitting in a corner of the cafe, asks. He has heard, as have the others, the rumours about dark, suicidal thoughts that swirled around inside il signóre Shelley’s head.
Maybe the Don Juan can tell us that, when she is found. If the sea will give her up.