I - Black Swan
It was winter when I first caught sight of him on the pond in St. James's Park, for the sky was dark gray, the air was cold enough to kill, the snowdrops shivered in the wind like little mad girls who had wandered out in nothing but their chemises to die of the cold - It was winter then, although later that day it would be spring, when the sun appeared at last, and also in Venice of course, where it was to shine more brightly then ever upon the lagoon and in all the silver channels that lap the walls of broken palaces - but in the beginning it was certainly winter. I was cold, I was sick unto death. I felt nothing, nothing at all. I had felt nothing for a long time. I had been going to die, for every winter I am going to die, and this despite my love for the season, despite a genuine love for cold air, snow and ice that goes back to my childhood. As a child I liked nothing better than to bury myself completely in the snow. I lay perfectly still under the snow, and the snow spread its white wings over me and brooded there. Also I would eat the snow - it had no flavour but a texture more ethereal than the most accomplished soufflé, and I sucked the long icicles that grew under the eaves - they were sharp as glass and tasted of vanilla and soot. But in the long run this passionate fondness for winter sports was to compromise my health, so that now every winter I am obliged to spend a certain timeless interval in bed grappling with death. I had just emerged from such a wrestling match, victorious but weary indeed, when I saw the black swan for the first time, trailing his inky feathers in the waters of the pond. And I remember - I was startled, not so much at his blackness, for I had seen black-feathered swans before, if only in the ballet - but at the unlikely crimson gash of his beak. That a beak should be such a colour - a glorious midsummer orange-rose, suggests a complicity on the part of the Creator with all that is greedy, luscious, eager for desire - the bite, the kiss, the lipsticked mouth, the slithering tongue. I was startled by that beak, unnerved by it. I suddenly felt I was going to cry. Instead I kissed my son's cheeks - one and one. My son has beautiful pink-white cheeks in the cold, smooth as marble, fat as peaches, cherub cheeks, just ripe for kisses - one and one. Thus he comforts his poor mother's heart. Appearances can be deceptive. Despite the robust appearance of a fine, full white bosom, white as the usual (white) swan's, which bosom is the legacy of numerous well-set-up aristocratic Lombard ancestors, I am often sick at heart. My heart's unsteady, it wanders, it murmurs to itself all sorts of forbidden things. It likes to run right up to the lip of death and then draw back, with a sigh, with a wistful glance. Happy is she who has recourse to a pair of childish cheeks, peach fragrant, marble still. The swan glided away from us across the pond. "It's like a crescendo and a decrescendo," said Coral, my son, who is a born musician, and often speaks in musical analogies.
II - Toast
Every morning at breakfast boys in black and white evening dress bring me toast. They are English boys, fresh-faced, blond, with shy smiles and slightly awkward manners. Not for them that magnificent ballet, "Dance of the Waiters", as performed daily and nightly in the breakfast rooms and bistrots of the better arrondissements - (music by Debussy or, in lesser cases, Ravel). Not for them the soft, insinuating tone, inclination of the dark head of closely curled hair, questioning fingers, as fine as a lady's, lingering over silver, proffering the iced cookie, the sugar, the very small cup - Caffelatte, Principessa? The toast is brown and white, as is the room in which it is eaten. Crisp brown and creamy, golden white. Tea, taken with the toast, is of the same palette. There are white flowers on the table, cream in the jug, a brown carpet - I could go on. Things are not always (not ever) as they appear on the surface. Before I have done, this brown and white shall yield to me whole kingdoms of unsuspected beauty and passion. Beautiful brown and white kingdoms of rigourous English passion. I eschew marmalade.
III - St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Interior
Completed in 1726, the work of the architect James Gibbs. Brown and white. Brown wainscoting, creamy white walls, white columns as refined and slender as a principessa's fingers, each bedight with fine golden rings. A buoyant open space under the wide barrel vault, floodlit by a double set of grisaille windows. The cross a single stroke of blue shining in the east, held up by white fingers upon a Venetian window, the brittle blue of the waters that swirl around the Salute, of Titian's Madonna, of Englishmen's eyes. Above this window three cherubs with chubby cheeks and gilded feathers peep down from the creamy clouds of heaven upon the mortal follies enacted below. One is not surprised to hear that these cherubs are the work of Italians - Giovanni Bagutti and Giuseppe Artari - but one is almost sorry to see them here, for all their confectionery innocence. They introduce a gluttonous note; it is as if a few bars of Austrian coloratura were suddenly interpolated in a Protestant hymn. But then they are such little cherubs, and so well-behaved! Not at all like the rowdy babies that have descended on the Abbey Church at Ottobeuren, where they clamber into the pulpit, climb upon the altars, play games with the sacred symbols and even have stolen the cardinal's hat from St. Jerome - not a liberty one imagines that ill-mannered patriarch very likely to take in stride. Not at all like the moon-faced Sicilian babies that play at death in the Oratory of the Holy Rosary in Palermo. The cherubs of St. Martin-in-the-Fields confine themselves to a few discrete medallions, nor do they overstep their allotted territory by so much as a single misplaced curl. There are no chubby arms and legs on view, let alone choicer bits of infant anatomy - we must content ourselves with the heads alone, and the little feathered appendages that sprout, however incongruously, from just below their necks, and guarantee a sacred character. Without their arms and legs they cannot play, and so are limited to a mere spectator's role in the church. They look on patiently, a bit wistfully, but quite accustomed to their confinement and inactivity, like any number of docile English children who have sat in the pews and returned their stares with the same wistful eyes these two hundred and fifty years. The rest of the ceiling is given over to a rigidly symmetrical design of scrolls and medallions, relieved only by the royal coat of arms and a gilded sunburst over the chancel that bears that most esoteric evocation of the Creator - the Tetragrammaton. On further reflexion one is grateful for the cherubs after all. They are not English - no - but they are so thoroughly Anglicized as to serve for a perfect model of English feeling and taste applied to the emotional excesses of civilization. The English are an intensely emotional people - perhaps the most emotional of the European peoples. Poetry is an English vice, and restraint its corresponding virtue, for there can be no poetry without a ruthless dedication to formal imperatives. The formless declamation of the passions is not poetry but confusion or, at best, prose. Poetry is born of ardour, like God giving light to the world, but it is made in a thousand careful delineations of tone and meaning, force and counterpoise, like the work of the six days. Every animal must have its food, every plant its season, and every thing that crawls or creeps or swims or flies upon the earth must have its allotted work. The world is a great poem - the greatest that ever could be, because it is born of infinite love and made by an infinite intellect. The attempts of the finite intellect to order the upheavals of the mortal heart are known as poetry. Look, for an example, at the grisaille. The windows have been fitted with thousands of tiny squares of glass, tinted in such a manner that the light passes through unimpeded in its brightness, but softened to a pearly luminescence. What science and what art, what depth of feeling for the truth of things was needed to achieve this effect - a beauty whose workings are invisible to the eye, for we see no colour in this light. We but see that it shines like the rosy light that first shone in Eden upon the interior world of brown-and-white, so that brown is not merely brown, but the whole richness of earth, the nap of velvet, the satin sheen of chocolate; and white holds out the lily and the rose, the mist at dawn and that at evening, the pink-white of young skin, the blue-white of snow, on and on - a multitude of whites that vary with the hour and season. The palette of this grisaille is strictly limited and of an almost fanatical lucidity. It is precisely the palette of the sky at sunset over the Channel. (Crossing back to France, I was sick at heart with happiness and wanted to die. And all because of the brown-and-white, and a certain gorgeous boyish orchestra conductor in the same national colours. But I anticipate...) The sea is dark as pewter, but on the horizon the sky is coloured: first grey, then silver, blue, lavender, pink, white-gold, white. The sky dark blue over. These are the only colours to be found in the windows of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. And even if you have never been at sea on a winter evening and watched the sun go down in mist and cold, and the whole sky alight with arctic beauty from that single source of hidden fire - even so, you will feel before these windows the peace and solitude of the sea. (There is a singular aptitude here, for the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields lies close to the heart of the Admiralty in Whitehall, and the bells are rung for victory at sea.) As windows go these are not very distinguished. There is grisaille at Chartres, and at Bourges, of an earlier and better age that is altogether superior to this in both design and workmanship. And in the Minster at York the Five Sisters bear witness to seven hundred years of English supremacy in the art of self-restraint. These medieval windows are set in complex geometrical patterns, interlocking mazes of pale colour that recall the barbarous splendours of the Lindisfarne. The modest grids of St. Martin-in-the-Fields are little enough beside them. And yet. Like the sunset, they shadow forth a multitude of things. Simplicity is but one of their many virtues and, after you have studied them a while, you may conclude that they are not simple at all, or rather, that they are simple in the way a great lady's dress is always simple. They would be at home at Citeaux or Fountains, for the same hauteur informs Gibbs's church as built St. Bernard's. If you are in doubt we can descend to the crypt, where every neatly groined vault and massive column speaks aloud the name of France.
If you consider that there are windows on two levels running the whole length of the nave, as well as the large Venetian window at the east end, and that all this glass recapitulates the same sunset grisaille, you will begin to appreciate the force of that blue cross. Mendelssohn was a composer much beloved by the English in the following century, and he used the trick again and again. Let there be grey! and how a single stroke of blue will tell. Gibbs repeats the moment outside the church when he adds, to the magnificent white spire that rises over the portico, the face of the clock in blue. And God, too, when he made the English, made them pale and colourless, but gave them eyes of blue. Not the sombre grey-blue common among the Nordic peoples, even less the changeable green-blue, lit by mysterious underwater lights that one sees along the Mediterranean from Venice to Tyre - but the real English blue, clear as glass and startling as an English summer day. In those darker regions of the globe that once bore allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen it is still widely believed that an Englishman's eyes are the real source of his authority, for those two glassy orbs of unadulterated blue are held to possess the power of absolute command over whatever or whomever they choose to regard.
When I walked into the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields with my son they were in the act of regarding some hundred and fifty young persons deeply engaged with Haydn's Creation. The glassy orbs in question belonged to a certain Mr. Bennett (Stephen to his friends, lovers, countrymen), a tall brown-and-white person (dark brown hair, creamy white skin) dressed with eloquent understatement in various shades of brown and white, sleeves rolled to the elbows the better to reveal a pair of statuesque white hands, voice to match the clothes - giving orders in the clipped tones that bespeak a few hundred years' cultivation of the best each generation has to offer. The rose-lip't lads and maidens in the chorus and orchestra were making the rafters to ring with gladness as eine neue Welt sprang up at Mr. Bennett's command. Then he cut them off in mid-cry with a single stroke of the wand - it seems the tenors had missed an entrance. They were pretty children, especially one girl with very long, pale gold hair who stood in the center of the front row. Yes, Mr. Bennett, I too, if I had to wrestle this band all afternoon, would put her there, this girl with the pale gold hair. After some vigorous admonishments from Mr. Bennett they began again, and again the harmonious world sprang up anew. In the side pews the beggars, the particular friends of St. Martin, slept on undisturbed beneath the sunset grisaille.
IV - St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Exterior
Mystical Rose, Pray for us.
Tower of David, Pray for us.
Tower of Ivory, Pray for us.
House of Gold, Pray for us.
St. Martin was a catechumen and a soldier in the Roman army. He is most famous for having split his cloak in half with his sword, in order that he might give half of it away to a beggar. When Christ Himself appeared to him in a dream to thank him for his gift, Martin had himself baptized, and he went on to become a bishop and one of the great Christian leaders. He cast out devils, healed the sick, and raised the dead. It was said of him that he had dominion over all created things - the animal, the vegetable, and even the inanimate elements. Once when a serpent was crossing a river Martin commanded it to go back, and immediately the serpent swam back the way it had come. Then Martin's heart was heavy and he cried out, "The serpents heed me, but men heed me not!"
The beggars in the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields were all asleep. They probably wouldn't have appreciated being woken up to be given a cloak for which they had no need anyway. First of all, it was quite warm inside the church - they keep it nicely heated. Secundo - the only cloak I had handy was a superb black mink that was given me by my Jesuit uncle of whom I am extremely fond. Tertio - the beggars all had cloaks already.
Mystical Rose - The secret opening to a woman's body that some men discover between the ages of twelve and twenty-one. Others never. Also, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Tower of David - A tower. Exact location unknown.
Tower of Ivory - This is Gibbs's tower for the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. The base of it straddles the portico, feet planted firmly apart, the stance of the acrobat at the bottom of the pyramid. A broad, muscular fellow, of course, adorned with a single bull's eye on each side, that mirrors the clock-face above. On these hefty shoulders stands the bell tower, holding up its twin pilasters like slender white arms; the hands, in the guise of graceful urns, reach up to frame the hypnotic blue eye of the clock. Above the clock two ravishing girls have locked hands - the first, an open octagon, stands perfectly straight, her arms over her head to support her sister, who balances head downward in a hand-stand, her ivory legs pointed at the sky. The golden ball rests on the tips of her toes.
House of Gold - also known as the Goldener Saal. Once a concert hall in Vienna, famous for its perfect acoustical properties and rococo-revival gilded caryatids. It was destroyed by incendiary bombs during the last war. Also, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
For my sixteenth birthday I was taken by my uncle, then a young Jesuit engaged in theological studies, to hear the great Maria Malibran at the Goldener Saal. Already the smell of war was in the air, and the people shied like horses at the least noise, expecting the worst. Already one saw with the inner eye the golden house blackened and smashed, the smooth bodies disassembled to their various bloody parts, the silk gowns and black evening coats burst to shreds that would travel on the wind to the far corners of the earth and serve there for a chieftain's headdress, a baby's shroud. It was in December, just before Christmas. I wore a gown of blue-white satin trimmed in white fur, and the enormous ear-drops that had belonged to my grandmother, Donna Camilla. (The ear-drops were a birthday gift from my father, but I was too young for them to look well.) That night for the first time I understood that I was beautiful. Suddenly I knew why the men turned their heads when I passed by, why they glanced repeatedly at my bosom, my hair, my profile, so that it was difficult for me to attend to the music - I was under constant pressure from the unmistakable prick of human eyes. Suddenly I knew why the women glanced away and frowned, why my father no longer came into my room at night to speak to me, why my uncle, the Jesuit had kissed me so gravely on the forehead that very morning and said, "I will pray for you, my child." I understood that I was beautiful, but I did not yet understand what it means to be beautiful. Wholly innocent of the burden of my own beauty, I sat in the golden house and listened to Madame Malibran. I have forgotten most of the programme, but I know that she sang Bellini's Casta Diva, for it was then I decided to abandon my plan for a life of contemplation among the Discalced Carmelites. I hadn't known that such pure, voluptuous sadness could exist outside the church. At the close of the aria I bowed my head - I can still remember the unaccustomed weight of those ear-drops - and prayed that my life be shattered into a million fragments of unbearable rapture and pain. Be it unto me according to thy word.
There is a mystery about acoustic. I have been in only three acoustically perfect rooms in my life - the old Goldener Saal, the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and the church of the Pietà in Venice. Stephen and I, one night in Venice, went in a gondola right into the church, for the greater part of the west front has fallen away, the water lies six feet deep in the nave, and Tiepolo's sublime "Triumph of Faith" is a scabby ruin. Once Vivaldi led a choir of orphan girls here, whose singing was one of the marvels of this city of marvels. The girls sang from the gallery, protected from prying eyes by a grille of forged iron. The grille is gone now - nobody knows where - and the gallery is inhabited by flocks of iridescent doves. In the moonlight their shadows moved across the face of the water like phantoms, like dark, vanishing dreams. Their voices floated down to us in tones of blue-green arctic lucidity, sudden bursts of phosphorescent light in the darkness. (Meanwhile the concrete pleasure domes of Paris and New York yield nothing to the ear but the dull chink of money down the drain.)
"Sing something, Stephen," I said. Stephen has a beautiful voice.
"Gracious Queen, Behold my fate!" he sang. Stephen has a knack for saying the right thing at the right moment. The child in my womb turned over, I thought I was going to be sick. A dove flew down and settled on my hand.
"Behold thy handmaid," I said.
"Don't be sacrilegious, darling. It doesn't suit you." And his eyebrow went up. Just the one.
On the way back to the palace I was cold. Stephen saw me shivering and gave me his cloak. It was a black velvet evening cloak lined with white silk.
"Stop if you see a beggar," I said. But we didn't see anybody. They were all dead, or sleeping.
V - The Creation - Black Swan Again
When Adam and Eve finally make their appearance in the third part of Haydn's Creation, they begin with what is ostensibly a long hymn of praise to the Creator's work. In parts one and two Haydn has given us his own version of the six days. Who can account for the cheerful, childlike innocence of this amazing old man? For Haydn was an old man when he wrote the Creation, which breathes the same fresh spirit that animates his earliest sonatas. This Creation is a very different affair from the primitive mythology of the Old Testament, let alone the puritanical, self-tormented Milton, and yet these two provided the inspiration for the (typically inadequate) libretto. With sure-handed legerdemain Haydn writes his own story, wherein the Garden of Eden takes on the character of an Austrian valley, and the angels sing lilting tunes in the jubilant style of the Stefanskirche Domchor. When Adam and Eve first catch sight of one another they launch into what the text informs us is that praise of God for which they were created. But who can doubt for a single instant the real intention of that lyrical andante, of those reiterated sighs of "so wunderbar" that escape repeatedly from the infatuated pair? How well they admire and praise one another, and that most ingenious of the Creator's inventions - love. The soprano enters first, and the man comes in behind to support and echo her. Haydn has made the contrast between the two voices as great as possible - Eve is an airy, weightless soprano, Adam a bass - the better to draw our attention to la sacrée difference. That Eve should lead stands in delightful contradiction to the text, for a little later, in the recitative leading into the beautiful love duet, she is made to say, "Dein Will ist mir Gesetz. So hat's der Herr bestimmt; und dir gehorchen bringt mir Freude, Glück, und Ruhm." Surely a masculine version of Paradise if ever there was one! But one that Haydn is prepared to undercut here, at the first appearance anywhere of man and woman, and in his usual sly, musical way, for it is Eve who leads.
The love duet actually begins with Adam's invitation, "Komm, folge mir" - Surely one is permitted a smile at the first man's hope that woman will ever consent to follow him in anything! Even Milton knows better than that, as his Adam relates: "Nature herself, though pure of sinful thought, Wrought in her so, that seeing me, she turned; I followed her." Next in the libretto is Eve's declaration of obedience. Having disposed of the spurious philosophy as quickly as possible in recitative, Haydn gives us yet another melting andante - one that speaks the "spirit of love and amorous delight" as well as anything sung by all the counts and serving girls of the operatic stage from that day to this. The allegro that follows it is nothing less than a full-out depiction of the act of love. Haydn has already treated us to several earfuls of humorous tone-painting - the lion roars, the tiger pads through the jungle, the deer runs swiftly through the country of the imagination, and the worm writhes in the dust - Why should not the man and woman also engage in some characteristic activity? The emphatic chords that surround the repeated cadence "Mit dir, mit dir" are particularly graphic. (Stephen in rehearsal moves the flat of the right hand up and down on these chords to coax the desired emphasis from the orchestra. They respond con brio, and the next time those chords come by, making the vault ring and the cherubs gasp with delight, he moves his slender hips in time, and the suggestion of nuptial bowers is so intense I bite my lips. Of course, you won't see any of this in performance, when Stephen becomes a black swan in his tail coat, and all his movements are as proper as they can be - Nor will you hear playing quite this lively either!) The lovers prolong their delights in endless development, complete with coloratura ecstasies from the lady, and at last reach a suitable climax. One wonders if Haydn's decision to repeat the whole thing once more with flourishes should be taken as a personal assent to St. Augustine's theory - that Adam had full volitional potency before the Fall. Be that as it may, Haydn has answered, in his own fashion, the age-old question of just what sex was like in the Garden of Eden, and according to Papa Haydn it was terrific. St. Augustine's answer, on the other hand, is surpassing strange. The saint takes a lively interest in the question, devoting several pages to its discussion in The City of God, and why not? Augustine the man took a lively enough interest in the thing itself, which "moves the whole man with a passion in which mental emotion is mingled with bodily appetite, so that the pleasure which results is the greatest of all bodily pleasures." All of this is intensely upsetting to a man who would forget Dido for the sake of his soul, and it's no wonder Augustine's Adam is not permitted even so much as the penetration of the womb, for procreation is to be accomplished by a kind of seepage, in a chaste embrace. The seed is planted at will, without the instigation of passion. He includes a long and intriguing chronicle of men who have volitional control over a bizarre variety of bodily functions, such as ear-wigglers, musical farters, and those who swallow and regurgitate numerous objects - not a very appetizing version of sex. Poor Adam! One begins to feel for him, that perhaps he is better off with his stolen fruit and fig leaf. In this Paradise is neither fear nor desire. And, although St. Augustine doesn't say so, one feels that in this Paradise, Beauty too is not. For what is beauty in the eye of man or woman but "the lineaments of Gratified Desire"? And to desire is immediately to fear, for one fears lest one fail to obtain one's heart's desire. If God made Eve beautiful, and not merely female as He made the cow and the ewe, then surely Adam desired her. There is no desire in the animals, for the cow is not beautiful to the bull. There is only the simple instinct that rises and sets with the seasons and finds its complete satisfaction in procreation. But man - oh, Man - desires to possess the unpossessable, desires Beauty for his own. And Beauty is of God, and God made it, and called it Woman, and gave it to the Man, that he might suffer, and know Him. Even before the Fall, Milton gives voice to Adam's eloquent distress: "Nature so fail'd in mee, and left some part/ Not proof enough such Object to sustain,/ Or from my side subducting took perhaps/ More than enough." More than enough! Who hasn't felt it knows not love. There is some strange admixture here, some weakness, a fatal flaw - the eating of the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil will only make manifest what is there already, as when a cracked glass is held to the light. Once they have eaten the fruit, Milton's Adam and Eve are at once overcome by desire. Untrammelled by innocence, their love-making is now passionate, compulsive and exhausting, "the solace of their sin" and the fountainhead of all our sorrows. Afterwards, as we all know, they were ashamed.
It seems there is much to be ashamed of in this irrational subjection to Beauty. Lust requires secrecy, according to St. Augustine, and even the shameless, "though they love the pleasure, dare not display it." The story is told of the abbot who sought to convert a certain courtesan. When she tried to entice him with her charms he said to her, "Follow me!" and led her to the main street of the town. There he ordered her to lie with him, that he might have his pleasure with her. But she was ashamed before the crowd of people, and refused. Then he said, "If thou art ashamed before men, shouldst thou not be more ashamed before thy Creator, who knoweth what is in darkness?"
What is in darkness - Call it sin, desire, lust or love, call it Beauty, call it Good or Evil. Not without reason does that most passionate heart among the saints, Augustine, long for a passionless Eden. But he confesses that such a state of affairs was only a speculation and never the reality. There were toil and trouble brewing before the fruit, before the Fall, when the Lord God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone." Why this evil in the hearts of men? According to St. Augustine, the course of ages is "an exquisite poem set off with antitheses." What appear to us as pain and suffering, as heartbreak, destruction and death are to Him but the ornaments of a great and terrible poetry. Stephen is gliding up to the podium, black-swan-like, while above the heads of the crowd the tower glides white-swan-like upon the night air. He has picked up the stick, the rose-lip't maidens in white dresses are ranked before him like ever so many swans, the light-foot lads are ready to play. Music, Maestro!
VI - Sunset at Sea
We took the steamer to Boulogne, Stephen and Coral and I. It was a cold, still afternoon, sunny in the harbour, with a brilliant white haze hanging over the sea. The boat was nearly empty. We sat in the cabin and read the Times, and drank bad Riesling that made my head ache. Coral fell asleep, his cheeks were the colour of old marble, with a yellow bloom that didn't look well, there were beads of sweat on his brow, and a few damp curls had stuck fast as if in stone. It was warm in the cabin, for the late afternoon sun shone brightly on the water. The wine was cold, tasteless, lit by the sun to ethereal gold. The dark fur of my coat sleeves and Stephen's dark, thick hair showed the same soft animal sheen. One was surprised by the infrequent crackle of a page being turned and folded over. Stephen was resolute in his absorption, reading with god-like gravity. I studied his Apollonian brow, so very white, with its twin ornaments - the black asymmetric curves of the eyebrows. There is something decidedly rococo about those eyebrows, they add a certain depraved character to a face which is cast in a mode of schoolboy perfection that might otherwise be tiresome. Schoolboys are generally tiresome, and Stephen is, after all, over thirty. I was to come to intimate acquaintance with those eyebrows, for they were to prove themselves the only reliable clues to Stephen's moods and meanings. I was to come to know their going up in the mornings, their going down in the afternoons, and their unpredictable evenings, the entire secret language, as, for example, the one, always the right eyebrow, shooting suddenly up the forehead in sarcastic inquiry - this generally at breakfast and liable to drive me to fits of distraction that could spoil an entire morning. Or another, the slightly drawn down don't-disturb me-now-darling-I'm -terribly-busy, this in evidence for anything from a sticky score to the morning newspaper. Then there is the slight, hopeful raising of the two together that says aren't-you-coming-to-bed-now-darling? so often seen on golden evenings, when the sun is going down in glory behind the Salute, when we have been sitting too long, hatless, in the sun, drinking the pale gold wine of the Veneto, sitting on the balcony listening to the bad singing of the ragged gondoliers who go from palace to palace and sing for a few centimes, or sitting on the piazza listening to the valses tristes of an aged Austrian band and watching the pigeons group and scatter like winged shadows in the dusk. But that afternoon on the steamer I had not yet had time to become fluent in the language of eyebrows - I had still a great deal to learn.
"The wine is awful. Can't you ask for some whisky?" I said. He looked up reluctantly, I thought, then glanced at his watch.
"It's only four o'clock, darling." His mouth moves so prettily, just like a child's. I dare say in a few more years he will begin to grow fat, then absurd, and at sixty he will be like an old woman. It's not a kind of beauty that ages well, and even now he is approaching the end of it, my poor Stephen. But I like him all the better for that hint of something drawing to a close, and the taste of mortal decay that lingers somewhere in his not-quite-fresh immortal beauty.
Later we went out on the deck to see the sunset. Coral was still sleeping. There was nobody at all on deck. The wind was fresh and cold, it caught at our clothes, our hair, ruffled the fur of my coat, pulled long strands from under my hat and thrust them into my mouth. Stephen's hair stood on end, the whole entire whiteness of his brow looked out upon the sea, his eyes were bluer than ever in that endless seascape grisaille. I leaned against the railing and looked down to where the water churned white like cream against the sides of the boat. The water under the bows was blue, or grey, or green. There was a veil of white mist as fine as smoke on the horizon. Soon the sun dipped behind the veil; then the entire sky glowed like a great glass panel - silver and blue, lavender and pink, and pearly white gilded in streaks of jaune d'argent. Stephen looked round quickly, then embraced me, eyebrows in the hopeful position, little smile with the pretty lips still pressed together, the upper curved like a cupid's bow, the lower full and round above the dimpled chin. I put my finger in the dimple and he turned his head sideways and bit it, kissed it, kissed my hand, my wrist, the sleeve of my coat, my mouth.
"Stephen, you're abducting me."
"Or the other way round."
"Yes." Then he began to sing. Stephen has a beautiful baritone, a weapon he has been known to use to serious advantage in tackling recalcitrant soloists.
"Wag ich Kopf und Ehr', wenn ich Sie retten kann..."
"Mein Ritter," I said.
"Yes. Say it again."
"Mein Ritter. Ritter, itter, bitter. My knight. My swan."
"Mein lieber Schwann." I put my finger on the dimple again. I loved being allowed to touch him. It was as if I suddenly had been set down in the Louvre in the middle of the night, free to tiptoe about the dark palace and fondle all the treasures, and nobody to stop me. "Isn't it difficult to shave in there?" meaning the dimple.
"You get used to it."
"Stephen, do you love me?"
"Good." I looked over his shoulder, to where the light lingered on the horizon. "Look - a ship. How odd. A black ship." Even the sails were black. As it passed before the light of the setting sun, a dark, wavering double appeared for a moment in the water. Then it glided, swan-like, away from us.
"Let's go in now, darling," he said. "You're chilled right through."
Coral was sitting up reading Stephen's full score of Die Entführung.
"Are you all right, my sweet dove? Did you sleep well?" I took him on my knee, ran a hand through his soft curls, straightened his little velvet jacket, kissed his soft cheek. "Were you at all afraid when you didn't see us?"
"No. The steward told me you were out on the deck." He let the score slip from his fingers and slide down among the cushions.
"Let's have that whisky now," said Stephen, and went off to look for the steward. Coral lay back against me, his face pressed into the fur of my coat. I took his hand and he played with my rings, a large coral set in Florentine gold, a band of diamonds.
"Still in Paris, I believe."
"Will we see him there?"
"No, we're going straight on to Venice with Mr. Bennett."
"Are we going to the Danieli?"
"I don't know. I haven't asked him."
"Does he decide everything?"
"Oh, yes. Everything. Mr. Bennett is extremely good at deciding things."
"Is that why you like him?"
"That's one reason."
"What are the others?"
"Well, I like his eyebrows."
"I don't. They talk to me. Even when he's not talking, they talk."
"That's exactly why I like them."
"Do you like Mr. Bennett very much?"
"More than Father?"
"I don't know."
"If you don't know, then why are we going to Venice with him?"
"Because Mr. Bennett decided we should."
"I see." He sighed, and slipped off my lap.
"You don't feel ill, do you darling?"
"No. Maybe a little." Stephen came back with the drinks. There was lemonade for Coral.
"Thank you, sir," said Coral.
"Don't mention it, son." Coral drank it up quickly; I could tell he was thirsty. But he never would have asked for a drink, for he hates to ask for things, preferring to immure himself in a silent need than to speak of a weakness, especially before others, that is, people other than myself.
"Please may I go out on the deck now?"
"Yes, but take your coat. It's cold." I buttoned up his coat, and pulled the wool sailor cap well down over his ears. "Watch out for the wind - don't lose your hat. And don't lean too far over and fall in."
"I will. I won't."
Stephen stretched out his long legs and sighed. He was smiling again. The whisky was hot and sweet, it went to my head just a little. Like kisses, I thought, watching his red lips smile, like kisses, yes, like kisses. We had another drink before dinner. We talked about what was in the newspapers. The King of Bavaria had disappeared. There was a sale of Chinese screen paintings at Sotheby's. A new Figaro in Berlin. At seven Coral appeared just as we were thinking of going down to dinner.
"Weren't you ever coming in?"
"Yes, sweet Mother. Here I am."
"And wherever is your hat, my darling?"
"The wind took it, Mother. Don't be angry. The wind took it right away."
"You're cold as a little fish." I took him in my arms to warm him.
At dinner Coral was unable to eat. There were shadows under his pale green eyes, his cheeks were yellow as Parian marble.
"I suppose it's the motion of the boat," I said, but he lingered behind his usual reticent smile and didn't reply. Stephen and I ate slices of pink salmon that tasted of the orchids on the table. We drank a bottle of champagne.
"Mother, I'm sorry...I am sick, Mother dear." I took him to his cabin, helped him undress and don his little white nightdress. I rubbed his smooth belly, and bathed his face with a cold cloth. It was hot, close, there was a smell of orchids. I threw the flowers out the porthole. Then I felt sorry for them, for they looked forlorn on the great dark sea - little orchids, little girls, like mermaids swimming in the moonlight, opening their fragrant arms to the night. I lay down on the narrow bed beside my son and sang for him his favourite arias from Mozart's operas. I kissed his salty-sweet forehead again and again.
"Mother, I need Lui." Lui is his bear, named after the French pronoun. I gave him Lui and he closed his eyes and sighed. "You can go now, Mother." He kissed me on the mouth again and again, the sweet, insolent kisses of childhood.
Coming in to the dining room I saw Stephen before he saw me. The eyebrows were drawn together tightly - not a good sign . He was staring into the empty champagne glass. Then he saw me and got to his feet.
"You should have a nanny to do that," he said.
"You horrible English," I said, as he slid in the chair. "Never will I have a servant to steal the heart of my beautiful child."
"Nobody said anything about stealing hearts. It's a matter of clearing up after them and all that."
"Stephen, you don't know anything about it."
"No, of course not."
"So shut up forever on this subject."
"Very good, Principessa. Would you like some coffee?" We had coffee. There was nobody but the two waiters, who stood by the bar talking to one another in low voices.
We went out on the deck to breathe the night air. The sky was black and full of stars, the moon thin as a curved blade. In the dark the engines sounded louder than before, the wind seemed to blow more fiercely, to be tossing the boat gently as one tosses a baby to play with it and I staggered, or perhaps it was just the champagne and the whisky, however it was I fell against Stephen and he held me close against his chest. I couldn't see him then but only smell him - wine and wool and salmon and the indefinable Stephen smell that sets me on edge inside like a bitch that has got a whiff of something odd and intriguing in the garden, and will dig and dig until she finds it, happy at last, triumphant, tail wagging, though it be only the carcass of a hedgehog - I felt the rough wool of his greatcoat, the strength in his arms, the rhythmical rush and retreat of blood and passion to the heart. I lifted my head and the stars seemed to spin in circles around us.
We lay down on the narrow bed and began the ritual embraces of fugitive lovers always and everywhere. It was hot, close, there was a smell of orchids. At the crucial moment his eyebrows nearly met, his mouth was open, the cupid's bow rosy and slack, I could see his little white teeth. I left a long scratch down Stephen's back. It was then he began to call me Kitty.
"Don't call me that. It's a stupid name."
"Nice Kitty," stroking me. "Nice little Kitty." He kissed me on the mouth again and again. I heard the wind rising, and the boat began to heave slowly from side to side in the dark, like something alive tossing in its sleep.
VII - Venice, Evening, Going to the Ball
The first time I saw Venice it was with my uncle, Amadé, who was then in the early years of his novitiate at the Jesuit seminary in Louvain. I was twelve years old, already tall, but still dressed like a child in short frocks, and with my hair down my back. I remember Amadé used to pull it sometimes, gently, absent-mindedly even, when he would happen to be standing behind me at an exhibition. Standing before some sheet of canvas covered with brightly coloured paint in a semblance of unbearable loveliness, sick and dizzy with beauty, staring my eyes out until the colours dissolved to dancing patches of indecipherable light, I would feel a sudden tug at the roots of my hair - I knew better than to turn around, although I could not have put my reason into words. Amadé was my father's much younger brother - I never called him anything but Amadé. He had been sent to Venice to teach Latin to the boys at the Jesuit school, but I don't believe he gave them much satisfaction. His Latin was at best indifferent, he preferred the English of Spenser and Ruskin, and the Italian of Dante. He spent most of his time out of school practicing Bach's Art of the Fugue on the rather wheezy organ in the Church of the Gesuiti. Some of the pipes no longer sounded, while others, suddenly and without warning, would emit the most dismal howls and shrieks - at such moments the tense, exotic music of these late contrapuncti was rendered positively apocalyptic, and the old women on their knees before the Holy Sacrament would cross themselves rapidly, looking up into the painted vault in mingled hope and fear. My uncle played well, with a patient devotion and extraordinary strength of mind that recalled the Spiritual Exercises. All this was before the plague, of course, when Venice was still a popular destination, and an indispensable adjunct to a young person's education. I stayed with the Carmelite Sisters of Santa Maria della Salute in a room no bigger than the linen closets at home, with a crucifix, a bed, a chair, and a view onto the Grand Canal and the central building of the world. In the evenings my uncle would call for me in a gondola, and we went to dinner at Harry's or the Gritti, or, less often, on the zattere beside La Calcina where he read me long extracts from Ruskin's Stones of Venice and Modern Painters in his glorious, richly confused Italian-American-French pulpit-declamatory style. It was May, the time of long drawn-out lavender evenings, when the water in the canals turns the colour of wine and the dome of the Salute glows like a swollen moon over the improbable city. The days were hot, crowded with people from all the corners of Europe and the Americas, all dressed in bright silk clothing and all determined to enjoy themselves, but the nights were oddly quiet. One heard the splash of the oar, and the creak of wood as the gondolier shifted his weight. We went by moonlight to see the palaces, and my uncle read out, before each house, the passage from Ruskin that described its beauty and character in words as lovely as the thing itself. Under my uncle's tutelage I came to regard "Papa John", as we called him, as a kind of oracle, and Turner as a species of god, bringing light to the world. "There is no God but Turner, and Ruskin is His prophet," said my uncle. I think now he probably meant it, though he was laughing as he said it, and he said it often. It came about years later that I was to carry out a resolve made then, in childhood, to go to London and see what Turner had painted of Venice. As others are moved to visit a place by the beauty of its representations, I was moved to visit the Turners by the beauty of Venice. If I had not gone to London to fulfil that ancient resolution, I would not have met Stephen there. If I had not met Stephen, I would not have ventured back to Venice only to find it, now, in the throes of death, even more beautiful than before.
My uncle was very handsome, he had the abundant curly hair and large, sleepy sea-green eyes of all the Ceniti, he was tall, rather frail, with a nose and mouth of such Renaissance beauty they would have been an embarrassment to a priest in any country but Italy. Of course I loved him. I would have done anything with him, I wasn't in the least afraid, but we did nothing. Every night he kissed me good-bye with cool lips, while my heart pounded and I tasted the new, blood-bitter taste of desire. One night in a gondola I put my hand on his neck, and he let it rest there for a moment. Then he unwound it carefully and held it in his lap.
"You are a sore temptation to me, Graziella," he said, and smiled, just a little. "I like temptations. I welcome them." And he held out his hands to the odorous Venetian night to show how he welcomed the temptations.
The Church of the Gesuiti lay in a quiet part of the town, near the Fundamenta Nuove where the funeral boats went back and forth to the camposanto on the island of San Michele, far from the tourist's town of noisy cafés and glittering hotels. It was a poor quarter, and the houses were built of brick rather than marble, and painted with coloured wash in faded tones of ochre and blue; the windows were crowded with pots of red and pink geraniums. The shadows were deeper there, the sun brighter. No one ever seemed to pass in the little square before the church. You could hear the water slapping the sides of the boats moored in the nearby canal. There were always half a dozen cats sunning themselves on the steps - I believe the Fathers put out food for them. The Church of the Gesuiti was the cause of a falling out between ourselves and Papa John, for, while admitting it to be "curious" and "worth a visit", he found it to be "the basest Renaissance", and both Amadé and I were very fond of it. The interior was completely covered in a remarkable marble intarsia that gave the effect of enormous green and white damask draperies, an effect Papa John found mean, but nonetheless memorable. He didn't even mention the marble "curtains" about the pulpit. These appeared to billow as if caught by a stiff breeze - the breath of the Spirit that, it was hoped, would inspire the preacher. I liked the pulpit best of all. We sat up most of one night in the garden of the Gritti, trying to make peace between Papa John and those curtains. I could see Amadé was as unhappy about it as I was. He said that Ruskin was a solemn old ass, that all the English were solemn asses and didn't know the meaning of a joke. I had my first hard liquor that night. My uncle gave me grappa to drink - it made my mouth burn and my eyes water. He didn't laugh at me, but watched me with serious interest while I struggled not to cough. We drank a toast to the Holy Spirit, and Amadé said that He would some day enlighten the minds of the Protestants, but until then it was best to forget them on questions such as marble intarsia curtains. He took hold of a curl that had fallen over my shoulder and pulled it quite hard.
"Drink, Graziella, drink. You must learn to drink. Never be afraid of any of the gifts of God. Never be afraid of temptation. You must learn to love temptation, for it comes from God."
"Not from the Devil?"
"The Devil too comes from God." When I had finished the drink he took my hand and kissed it.
"How hot your hand is, carissima. Do you have a fever?"
"Yes, oh yes." He held my hand to his lips, testing it.
"The climate here is very unhealthy. You must take care not to fall ill."
When I stood up to go the ground seemed to leap from under my feet. I fell on the pavement and cut my knee, there was blood on my white dress and torn stocking. Amadé only laughed shortly and put me in the gondola.
"Be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect," he said. Now I was suddenly shivering, nauseous; I pressed my mouth into the black stuff of his soutane. Calmly, he patted my shoulder. "Graziella, you are already perfect," he said with satisfaction. "Only you must learn to drink grappa. But - ça va venir."
The Sisters were terrified at the lateness of the hour, the blood on my dress. I crawled into bed, miserable and sick, sick as well with fear that there would be a scandale, but there was nothing, only a violent headache in the morning when the light over the lagoon burnt into my eyes like fire. I was late for morning prayers. I prayed with a furious heart, that God would punish Amadé. In His mercy the Lord disregards the prayers of the moment, for I would not have harmed a hair of his head.
In the same Church of the Gesuiti there was a painting by Titian of the martyrdom of St. Lawrence - it is not there now. I believe it was stolen some time during the bad days of the plague, when daring thieves helped themselves to the accumulated treasures of Venice. The painting was a dark and terrible thing. St. Lawrence was roasted alive on a gridiron, and is most famous for having made the stoical quip, "I am already cooked on this side, turn me on the other." He became one of the most popular of the martyred saints, and, in another example of that essentially Catholic sense of humour my uncle found so sadly lacking in John Ruskin, the patron saint of cooks. God loves a joke, and perhaps has made us to love, serve, and amuse Him. Oddly enough, there is no joke in Titian's picture, but a very dark night indeed, lit by the hellish fires that burn under the saint's body, and the light of heaven that opens above him. When Lawrence was brought in to be tortured, the Emperor Decius said to him, "Sacrifice to the gods, or thou shalt pass the night in torments!" And Lawrence answered, "My night hath no darkness; all things shine with light." In the painting the saint is drawn in such a position as might admit either agony or ardour. His face is turned to the light. According to St. Bonaventure, it is God Himself who sends light into the world, illuminating the soul of man by the action of divine grace. In Venice, where the light is stronger than anywhere else on earth, Titian made, to stand beside the brightly coloured glories of his "Madonna Assunta" and "Madonna di Ca' Pesaro", this vision of night and hell.
The picture frightened me, but Amadé forced me to look at it carefully. "Don't be afraid! There's nothing in it but love. Take a good look. Love is like that."
"Do you love me, Amadé?"
"Yes. But never tell."
It says of St. Lawrence in The Golden Legend that "As much as the ardour of faith burned in him, so much did the flame of the torture grow cool." And thus it was with Amadé. But as for me, I was like Turner's Regulus, my eyelids had been stripped away and I struggled under an illumination so severe that palaces and water and sky, people and things, were annihilated in a blaze of living light. At last I fell into a nervous fever and was taken off to Vevey to recover my health. In the fall Amadé was sent on to a school in Vienna. I didn't see Venice again for twenty-five years, when I arrived on a winter morning with Stephen - Regulus again, but this time I was prepared. Or so I thought.
VIII - Morning, Returning from the Ball
Turner left an astonishing legacy of paintings, both finished and unfinished, that bear witness to the absolute luminosity of Venice. Before Venice, his paintings typify the dark sobriety of English passion - they range from grey to dark blue, they are lit by fey moonlight and nipped by frost. This fundamental sobriety is important to an understanding of Turner's Venice, for his truly arresting volte-face is only comprehensible in light of his quintessentially English sensibility. He had struggled bravely with sombre North European subjects, he had fought the good fight with the Claudean ideal, when at last he said: Let there be light! And a new world sprang up in the Venetian lagoon. In these pictures one feels the whole man, reunited to his other self; there is a sense of poetic justice, the coming to light of truth that Plato intimates in his parable of love. Turner begins with characteristic caution . In "Bridge of Sighs, Ducal Palace and Custom House, Venice: Canaletto Painting" the hommage is openly declared, the palette still relatively sober, and the outlines clear. Then, with ever-increasing abuse of colour-wash and white ground, he proceeds to annihilate the quiddity of space and extension in a mist of ethereal Venetian light.
As, for example, "Morning, returning from the ball", a golden crescendo of sky and sea and gilded marble, and shapes in the water that shimmer and dissolve: sea monsters perhaps, or water nymphs, or even the blackened faces of the dead. For Haydn, too, the sun rises on a long, pulsating crescendo that begins with the finest, most delicate rays of barely perceptible light, and ends in a fortissimo blaze of glory. And Uriel, the Angel standing in the sun, sings in a sunny tenor the bright splendour of the day. Meanwhile Stephen is dozing beside me, white tie askew, shirt rumpled, the beginning of stubble on his pink cheeks; the tilt to his nose, which is just the tiniest bit snub, so particularly and oddly irritating in the light of dawn; his eyebrows perfectly quiet, exhausted after a whole night of social athletics, his cloak thrown carelessly over one knee, the silk lining bright as gold in the sun.
Everything Turner did afterwards was touched by it, so that one may fairly say that, after Venice, even those pictures that are not of Venice are nonetheless pictures of Venice, as one may say of a poet who has had but one great love, that all his work, however intended, would not have been but for her. So it is with "The Angel Standing in the Sun", or "Light and Colour, Goethe's Theory", or, of course, "Regulus" - painted in Rome in 1828 on a Claudean model, but reworked in 1837 just before the great Venetian paintings of the 40's and as if in preparation thereof, for it depicts with tormented clarity the absolute power of light. Whereas Titian was a Venetian - he gives us back the colours of lagoon and palace, of sky and sea in all their seasons, he grinds them for his palette and dips his brush in them. In the "Madonna di Ca' Pesaro" we feel the whole life and movement of the Grand Canal; in "Bacchus and Ariadne" it is so palpable that, although it hangs in a London gallery, as one gazes into its blue depths one seems to feel the languid air, to hear the plink of oars and the gondolier's ancient cry.
That first morning when we sailed into the lagoon there was a black galleon riding anchor in the harbour. Most of the hotels were closed, even the Danieli reduced to a few rooms on the piano nobile, but we had no trouble finding a place. There were empty palaces for the asking, most of them inundated by the tides and falling to pieces, full of rats, but lovely still and on the Grand Canal. As the future was uncertain, and the moral and physical climate of the city doubtful, we thought it best to send Coral to school on the mainland. After making inquiries we settled on the monastery school at Bagnacavallo. It was run by the Premonstratensian Fathers, and had a good reputation among the better Venetian families. There were no schools in Venice, no children, excepting the beggar brats of San Marco, for the plague had carried them off, they died in disproportionate numbers, and the families of those remaining had taken fright and left the city. The native population was essentially the destitute and the unscrupulous; the visitors might have served as models for the figured capitals of the Ducal Palace, for they offered examples of all the vices. No one had any business here. It was a free-floating, international society, there was a lot of money, although some were engaged in separating it from others, who, they felt, had less use for it than themselves. We were not surprised at the occasional murder, certainly not at irregular loves of every description. Men went about openly with boys, people took drugs, both men and women painted their faces, wore odd clothes, stayed up all night and slept all day. It was certainly dubious company in which to find oneself.
The plague seemed to be in abeyance, but still one heard rumours of isolated cases. The fabric of the city, never strong, eaten over eight centuries by the tides, was collapsing at last into dust and tears, and the blue-veined palaces were sliding, stone by stone, into the sea. The whole of the Riva degli Schiavoni was gone, the water stood three feet deep in San Marco at the fullness of the tide. It was a sport among the visitors to go out on the nights of the full and the new moons to see what new damage the tide had wrought. Sometimes the piles beneath a building would give way all of a sudden under the force of the tide, and a whole wall of parti-coloured marble would tumble into the sea with a roar. There was a black, evil-smelling cloud that hung continually about the island of San Michele, but no one seemed to know what they were burning there, or why. Every morning at dawn the funeral boats went by, two or three every day, draped in black crape and decked with ostrich plumes that waved in the wind like great black fans. Occasionally someone we knew disappeared, but one never knew if he had died or just gone away. Stephen was restless, he missed his work. Given the relative merits of orchestra conducting and sex, he certainly had a point. Conducting offers a keener, more intense mental pleasure, sex a greater physical pleasure, but the two are essentially alike. There can be few sensations to compare with that of the conductor's when the orchestra is in full cry, and under his thumb. To the sheer physical thrill of sound is added that of absolute dominance - where else in life do a hundred souls give instant heed to one's every least command? And then there's the whole question of judgement - tempi, dynamics, the shaping of a phrase, the myriad shades and lights that give life to a score. There are so many more nuances in music than are possible between a man and woman, although Stephen certainly did his best. Yes, Stephen was restless. Fortunately, being an Englishman he was romantic. I knew he would stay at least until the child was born. Then, being an Englishman, he disliked the position of cavaliere servente - it embarrassed him. He insisted upon a divorce, and my husband was not obliging. There was vague talk of a duel, but I knew that as long as we remained in Venice we were safe. My husband is an American with a lively sense of public hygiene - he would never enter a plague-ridden town. Stephen was bored, these things chafed. After all, one cannot be always going to balls and making love. He occupied himself with filing endless papers relating to the divorce, he began the study of Armenian with the Orthodox monks who ran a hospice for the dying on the island of San Lazzaro, he drank, not too much, but enough to take the bloom off his beautiful English complexion. He was pale yellow now where he had been white, and thinner, and more nervous. The eyebrows more and more frequently were drawn down as if he had just hurt himself. Sometimes in the mornings he would wake, in a boat on the Grand Canal, or in the great blue silken bed that we shared in an otherwise empty room of peeling gesso where the light came in through Moorish ogives - outlined black against the morning light they were exactly like the line drawings in The Stones of Venice and made me think of Amadé and the girl I had been then - he would wake and the eyebrows would wander up his pale, chaste forehead in mute inquiry - I realized then that he had absolutely no idea where he was, or what he was doing here.
I cannot say that he ever complained. And although, as time went on, we were not happy, for we knew we were lost, this very unhappiness only served to increase our pleasure in one another's company. We had a gondola, a harpsichord, we sang duets, we spent whole nights roaming the little canals, rocking together in the dark with only the murmur of the oar in the water and the wild, bird-like cries of the gondolier to tickle our ears. We went roving among the ruins and tried to piece together the old mosaics, to decipher the half-obliterated features of saints and nymphs that stared back at us from leprous frescoes. Once we went to the Gesuiti - the marble curtains had stood up well, the pulpit was still in place, but the Titian of course was gone, and the four angels that formerly had stood in the croisée had fallen on their faces in the dust. Stephen touched the curtains and smiled.
"It's not real," he said. "What a marvellous fake! Come here - Touch it - Look - It's not real."
"Yes, I know. I've been here before."
"Oh well, if you've been here before..." He went up to the loft and tried the organ, but was unable to coax a sound from it. "I don't know how to play the organ anyway," he said. "I used to play the bassoon."
"The bassoon, Stephen?"
"Yes indeed. A most bracing instrument, the bassoon." The eyebrows alone should have told me.
As the months passed it grew hot, sultry, the sky turned pale blue, then white, then sulphurous yellow. I don't know how much champagne we drank - three or four bottles a day at least. It was the best thing for keeping cool. The scirocco blew day after day. We talked about going away, to the mountains perhaps, we were always making plans, but somehow the days slipped by one after another, every day the same as the ones before. We went to the piazza and drank champagne, and ate ices, lemon ices, chocolate ices, champagne ices. We saw the oddest people - elderly gentlemen in silk ball gowns, pretty boys, rouged and powdered and wearing fabulous jewels that must have belonged to the countesses at whose tables they sat and ate, their eyes glittering like darker jewels in the night; black-skinned Moors who went from table to table selling love charms, philtres, and little poisonous green snakes. One of the local favourites was a dwarf with a large, heavy head, tiny arms and legs, a huge belly and, apparently, a correspondingly large natural endowment. He was much in demand among the ladies of Venice, indefatigable in their service, and could often be seen hurrying from palace to palace, sitting upright in his gondola in a tight blue jerkin and a pair of parti-coloured tights with a huge cod-piece. There were never fewer than three or four ladies at his table. There were dwarfs in blue and yellow suits and feathered caps who did tumbling tricks. There were beggar brats, eager, pushing, who would scramble for a centime. There were other, older beggars with the tell-tale marks of the plague survivor on their faces - they stood in the shadows under the arcades and rattled tin cans for money. There were thieves with stilettos lurking here and there, under the bridges and on the quays, and Stephen always went armed. There was a pathetic band of two violins, a piano and a cello who did their worst to Léhar and Strauss. Stephen put up with the dwarfs and the beggars, he was prepared to face the thieves, but when the Austrian band began to play I knew it was time to go home.
We ate odd things, jellied eels, chocolate fish, and we did odd things too, to one another in the blue silken bed, odd sweet things I hadn't thought of before. Some of them made me laugh. Stephen was proving to have a superior imagination. Amadé was wrong about the English, I thought. It's just that you have to know where to touch them.
When it was too hot to sleep we sat late over sputtering candles and watched the moonlight on the Grand Canal. The wind blew like a hot breath in our faces and didn't cool us at all. Stephen wiped his brow with a handkerchief, then sat with his hands on his knees, humming something - a song of Purcell's, a Stabat Mater, the Kyrie from Mozart's "Coronation" mass. He was far and away the best hummer I have ever heard. Or I would play the harpsichord for him. He had a great liking for simple things - Purcell's suites, the pavanes and galliards of William Byrd. Or he sat over a book, cogitating the mysteries of the Armenian language.
"I understand from my tutor that the terrestrial paradise was certainly in Armenia. I always wondered where it was." And the right eyebrow went up - just the one. I tried to send him away but he only came back at me with Milton:
"How can I live without thee, how forgo
Thy sweet Converse and Love so dearly join'd,
To live again in those wild Woods forlorn?"
Then Mimi turned up. Mimi is my elder son, a cadet at the École Militaire. He came to see me about the divorce. I don't know whether he came by himself, or his father sent him. He seemed very tall, for he is always so much taller than I can remember, and the uniform somehow makes him appear taller still. He came striding in stiffly, his sword jangling, the white plume bobbing on the hat under his arm. He bowed stiffly and kissed my hand, and I kissed his cheeks which are still soft, and then he kissed me again and again. Fortunately, Stephen was out.
"Mimi, whatever are you doing here?"
"Whatever are you doing here, Mother dear?"
"Oh Mimi. Please sit down." He sat down in Stephen's chair.
"I've come to bring you home, Mother dear."
"No, Mimi. It's out of the question."
"I said no. You shouldn't have come."
"But I missed you."
"I missed you too."
We went to the Lido and had lunch. There was sand in everything - the lobsters, the wine, our hair. I ate but little, but I watched him eat, gladdened by his enormous and indiscriminate appetite. Watching him, I thought of other lunches tête à tête at the Grand Vefour, the silent swoop and dive of the waiters, the pink and yellow and chocolate food, and Mimi set down like some fine-feathered migratory bird amidst the red plush, eating everything in sight and the prettiest thing in the place. Afterwards it was Phèdre at the Comédie Française. Now I watched him consume the sandy offerings of the Lido with the same ruthless enthusiasm. I watched his beautiful sea-green eyes. I touched his curly hair, the braid on his sleeve.
"You're beginning to look just like your Uncle Amadé."
"Your Uncle Amadé."
"Which reminds me, he asked me to give you this." He took out a long envelope and handed it to me.
"I don't know." Later, when he wasn't looking, I dropped it into the canal. I already knew what it was going to say.
When Stephen came home I made the inevitable introductions. They danced around one another like a pair of angry egrets. "I'll talk to him," I said. "Let me alone with him tonight."
I lay in the blue silken bed. The windows were open; there was moonlight on the silk curtains and on the canal. Mimi came in and sat on the bed.
"Please, Mother, come home with me now like a good little Mother."
"I can't, Mimi. I'm going to have a child."
"Mother! At your age!"
"You have an exaggerated idea of my antiquity, my darling." He sat for a while, digesting this unwelcome piece of news.
"Then I suppose you shall have the divorce?"
"And marry Mr. Bennett?"
"Yes. Englishmen are very romantic, I'm afraid. Mr. Bennett believes in marriage."
"He didn't believe in yours!"
"Now darling, don't be dense. I encouraged him."
"You'll still be my darling..."
"No I won't."
"And Mr. Bennett's very nice."
"I hate him!"
"I know you do, my darling.
"You'll go to hell, Mother. It's against the Church."
"I know. Hush now. That's enough. You must go back to school. Kiss me good-night." I kissed his hair, his cheeks, his hands which once had been so little and weak and were now so much larger and stronger than my own. At last he went to bed. When I got up in the morning he was already gone, although the dawn had just begun to unshadow the faithful dome of the Salute. A funeral boat went by, black plumes waving on the wind.
We went to the Church of the Pietà when the moon was full - the tide came rolling in across the lagoon and we sailed right in through the crumbled doorway. Part of the roof had fallen in, and the moonlight shone into the church - it was bright on the water, but shadowy under the walls.
"Sing something, Stephen," I said. We wanted to test the acoustic. Stephen began to sing, the rats scurried up the walls, the pigeons fluttered in the gallery. One heard each tiny footfall, each rustling wing, one heard, of course, each plaintive, lovely note.
"Gracious Queen, Behold my fate!" he sang. A dove flew down and settled on my hand.
"Behold thy handmaid," I said, for just then I felt the child.
"Don't be sacrilegious, darling. It doesn't suit you." One eyebrow. Then something bumped against the side of the boat.
"Stephen, what is it?" Bump. Bump. The water was sloshing over with the incoming tide, the boat tilted crazily from side to side. The gondolier shoved with the oar and the thing moved off.
"Something there, Signore."
"Yes. Let's have a look." Stephen lit a torch and held it above the seething water. It was a man, floating on his back. His eyes were wide open. On his face were the tell-tale marks of the plague.
IX - "With drooping wings ye cherubs come..."
Stephen took up pistol practice in the wild, overgrown garden. He was a good shot, able to hit a wine glass at twenty paces. Soon we had nothing to drink from, and the path along the garden wall was littered with red and blue fragments of Murano glass. Then he managed to get hold of a bassoon somewhere, and blasted the air with its lugubrious tones. It sounded like somebody crying somewhere in the house. Every week I received a diligent report from the Premonstratensian Fathers. Coral was happy at the school. I had the occasional note in his own hand, reassuring if not exactly informative. Once a month Stephen and I made the short journey to Bagnacavallo. Coral looked well - his colour was fresh, his spirits even, if a bit subdued. Then one day I received word that he was suffering from a slight fever. The fathers were not at all alarmed, but I wanted to go to him. Stephen thought it unnecessary. In the end we compromised and sent our own private physician to attend him. The doctor's report was satisfactory. But two days later I received another letter, this time by special courier - the child was worse. We set out immediately for Bagnacavallo, but by the time we arrived my son was dead.
There was nothing at all to be done about it. The Fathers were very much affected, some were openly in tears, for Coral had been a great favourite. When Stephen heard of it he turned mortally pale, I was afraid he was going to faint, but he did nothing of the kind. We brought my son back to Venice in a white coffin with gilt gesso and cherubs on the lid. They were St. Cecilia cherubs, the kind that are all heads and wings, like the cherubs at St. Martin-in-the-Fields.
They set him down in the empty drawing room beside the harpsichord, under the rose glass chandelier. There were lighted candles at his head, flowers, heaps of flowers, at his feet. Everyone we knew and many people we didn't know at all had sent flowers. The air was thick with sweet, warring scents. The servants were discreetly sorrowful, moving on tiptoe. They spoke in whispers before us. But as I sat all day with my dead son I heard their natural voices rising up from below stairs to echo in the silent house. My son was self-contained in death as he had been in life. With horror I kissed his cold cheeks that felt and looked like marble, with horror touched the dead hair still shiny with life. There was a silk cushion on the floor beside the coffin. I knelt and prayed to the Holy Mother of God. I begged her to take care of him there, where I could not follow him. It grew dark and cold, it began to rain. The wind blew rain through the open window onto my son's face, but he never moved. When I saw how he never moved, even though the rain was pelting his face, I began to scream.
Stephen came in and put me to bed. He promised to sit by my son for the rest of the night. He was there beside the coffin in the morning, paler even than my dead son, his head bent over the Armenian grammar. I kissed his pale face, then Coral's. There must be no delay about the funeral - already he no longer smelled like a child, but like something dead.
Now it was our turn to ride in the early morning on the black boat to San Michele. They had decked it with white ostrich plumes for the death of a child. As we passed along the Grand Canal the world was on fire with light - sea and sky, boats and broken palaces, all dissolved in a golden mist of tears before my eyes. A cloud of evil-smelling, greasy black smoke hung over the island. They were burning the bodies of the plague-ridden dead, hoping to reduce the spread of the disease. The rats ran freely among the naked cadavers. We put my son in the earth and returned home.
Stephen took up pistol practice once again. From the window I watched the top of his head moving in the wilderness of the overgrown garden. The odour of gunpowder mingled with that of flowers. Mercifully, he no longer attempted the bassoon. Nor did he speak to me of my dead son. I was beginning to appreciate the depths of Stephen. My time was drawing near.
Then Amadé turned up. I nearly didn't recognize him, for I don't remember ever having seen him dressed otherwise than in the distinctive black soutane and biretta of his order. He was dressed like an ordinary gentleman in dark clothes. He shook Stephen's hand and looked very hard into his eyes. I saw the eyebrows go up, then swoop down to meet over the bridge of the nose. I went with Amadé to the camposanto to lay flowers on my son's grave. It was cold out on the water, the light was oblique, already the autumnal chill was sweeping down from the Alps. There was a black galleon riding anchor in the harbour, its sails furled close like the wings of a swan at rest.
"How is John taking it?" I said, meaning my husband.
"He's taking it. He'll take anything from you, won't he? Why did you marry him?"
"What is this, the Spanish Inquisition?"
"Let me alone, Amadé. A girl has to marry someone, I suppose."
"You never loved him." It was a statement, not a question. I considered it carefully before replying.
"You know perfectly well whom I loved, Amadé."
"And do you love this Englishman?"
"Yes. But never tell."
At dinner it was just the three of us. We spoke of Coral - it was easy to speak of him with Amadé, who had known him all his short life.
"I offered my last mass for him, not that he needs it, poor little soul."
"Your last mass?"
"Yes, Graziella, my very last mass. I've come to save your honour, as I despair of ever saving your soul. So you've been breeding bastards, have you?" He looked significantly at my swollen figure in the black silk gown. Stephen got to his feet.
"I don't know if you're capable of giving satisfaction..." he began.
"I have come here for no other purpose." A little smile crossed Stephen's lips and his eyebrows flickered for a moment like two moths at a candle. Why, he has been waiting for this, I thought. I knew then there was no use trying to reason with either of them. Men are ridiculous.
They went to the Lido at dawn, hoping to kill one another. Stephen was killed. Amadé turned the gun on himself. They brought Stephen home and laid him on the bed. There was a trickle of blood like a twist of silk thread running out of the corner of his mouth. His eyes were wide open - they seemed to have absorbed the entire blue of the sky. His eyebrows were raised in one last hopeless inquiry at the strangeness of it all.
Amadé I never saw again. They knew better than to bring him here. Perhaps he went out on the tide - I cannot say.
Once more I made the trip in the early morning, up the Grand Canal, then into the rio dei Santi Apostoli, past the Gesuiti and across the lagoon to the island of San Michele. This time the plumes on the boat were black. I saw him laid in earth, and I threw a handful of earth into his grave. I think the dead sleep well there, for it is quiet in the midst of the sea.
At sunrise on the third day after the duel, Stephen's son was born dead, in the civic hospital on the rio dei Mendicanti. From my bed I can see the painted paradise on the ceiling, which I once examined through a pair of opera glasses with Amadé. My heart no longer murmurs, but shouts aloud its distress. I am bleeding slowly from somewhere inside. I am not expected to live.
I often think of Stephen, and how he must have lain there in the sand under the rising sun, his eyelids fixed open by the swift hand of Death, how the sun must have burned inexorably into those poor eyes, so that the blue of the sky was fixed there forever, as the colour is fixed in glass by the heat of the fire. I wonder what his blind eyes saw, that looked so long at the sun? Perhaps an Angel standing there, stronger than Death, and more beautiful than the light that shone in Eden.