One evening in May 1945, a launch from the Italian fleet set off from the shore through the waves and sped towards a cruiser named the Duke of the Abruzzi which was anchored out to sea. On board, a tall lady was sitting next to her tiny husband on a bench at the rear. She turned around as, along the shore, she saw the crowds who had come to wave them off. She grabbed an Italian flag from the bow and waved it towards the spectators. « Italy first, Italy forever, whatever happens, and always in our hearts ! » She was Queen Elena of Italy. Her impassive husband was King Victor Emmanuel III.
Having inherited the throne at a young age on the death of his father, the diminutive king had seen his country go to war, and been unable to do anything to stop it. At first victorious, Italy was soon beaten, invaded, occupied, divided and sullied by years of fascism. Victor Emmanuel then sprung a spectacular coup d’état by having Mussolini arrested, fleeing Rome, making peace with the allies, abdicating in favour of his son, the Prince of Piedmont, and going into exile… This was what was on his mind as he stepped on board the launch. He gazed around at the Bay of Naples, one of the finest sights in the world.
Forty years earlier, his father had named him Prince of Naples, a title invented to impose the Savoy dynasty on a recently-reunited Italy, which was not to the taste of the Neapolitains, who were loyal to the Bourbons. The Prince had been given a cold welcome. He lived alone and quite modestly in a small appartment on the top floor of the huge building once occupied by the Bourbon kings. He saw only a few friendly fellow officers and, on his father’s orders, attended various receptions given by the Neapolitans to show his good grace and to win their sympathy. But this was impossible…
One evening, he went to the D’Avalos Palace. The reception room, beneath the palace attic, had been decorated in a Pompeian style, in pistachio green and white, and was full. Generally, the shy man was something of a wallflower, but on that day his eye was drawn to a woman who had just arrived, and whom he had never seen before. Wearing a rather austere robe, she was wearing a vast array of rather extravagant jewelry. Princess M. had inherited her jewels from her hugely rich parents, and on their death, her care had been entrusted to her aunt and uncle. She was accompaned by a tall, rangy man whom everyone knew as her husband.
The Prince asked to be introduced to the Princess, and this was duly done. Immediately, and most unusually, the heir to the throne asked her to dance, and signed up for two more dances on her dance card. He only left the ball when he was certain that she too had already left. She was attracted to the small and not particularly handsome Prince, perhaps due to his extraordinary personality, and they met again, although always in public and with no possibility of private discussion. The bond between them, however, gave them both more pleasure than they had previously known.
The heir to the throne then went to Rome for a number of official ceremonies to be attended by all the royal family. He only returned to Naples two months later and was informed by his military comrades that Princess M. had died quite suddenly. She had suddenly fallen victim to an illness and the doctors had been unable to do anything. As happens in hot countries, the body had been buried the day after her death.
The brief glimmer of light in the Prince’s life was extinguished. Victor Emmanuel did not have the strength to go and pay his condoleances to the widower, or to the aunt and uncle.
One night, on returning home from a dinner party, he passed in front of the palace where the Princess M. had lived. Since returning to Naples, he had thought only of her. He looked up at the baroque facade. At night, the claret walls generally took on a sinsiter hue, but the full moon that night made them quite splendid. The balustrades of the balconies and terraces were highlighted, when suddenly he saw a silhouette…
A woman was leaning over the central balcony of the piano nobile. She stood out clearly in the moonlight against the shutters… He suddenly noticed that the shutters were closed, and could only have been locked from the inside. How was it possible for the woman to be on the balcony if the shutters were closed ?
His blood froze as Victor Emmanuel realised that the woman on the balcony, with her head tilted towards him, was none other than his dear friend, the Princess M., and that she was looking at him. Her face bore the saddest expression he had ever seen as she continued to gaze at him.
They looked at one another for long enough to be sure that this was no hallucination. She was dressed in white. There were dark patches on her face and hands and on her finger was a ring with a very beautiful ruby that she had never worn in her life.
When the prince told two officer friends about this encounter, they did not tease him, but appeared quite concerned. One of them told him that for some unknown reason the Princess had been buried wearing the family jewel that she had never worn before. Finally, one of the two officers found the courage to admit the truth, as if summoned to do so by the dead princess. She had been very rich, and had lost her parents at a very young age. She had grown up under the guardianship of her aunt and uncle. They had not wanted her wealth to escape them, and so had found a husband who had guaranteed never to touch his wife’s fortune. The Princess had bever been truly happy thoughout her brief life.
Worried that the husband may suspect their machinations, the guardians summoned the princess to their villa in Porticci. She left after several days, seriously ill, and died in agony, displaying all the signs of having been poisoned. Black patches had appeared on her face and hands.
Victor Emmanuel was convinced that the Princess’s appearance on the balcony had a precise meaning : as if the deceased were willing him to reveal the truth and for justice to be done. And so, as the murdering couple believed that proof of their crime had been buried along with their niece, the story became public. The Princess’s will was published, in which she left all her fortune to her « beloved aunt and uncle », with no mention of her husband.
Public indignation grew, the press became involved, and the judiciary could no longer remain uninvolved. An investigation was ordered. Despite his grief, Victor Emmanuel felt a certain satisfaction.
But alas, he knew little of Naples. The witnesses hesitated and contradicted one another, as the Neapolitans refused to incriminate the couple, fearing the aristocrats’ venegeance. The widower himself would say nothing. The assassins were deemed to be innocent and could quite happily profit from their niece’s wealth.
Faced with such monstrous injustice, Victor Emmanuel came to detest Naples. The years that passsed would prove him right. And his final thoughts, as he sailed away from his country’s shores, were for his lost Princess.