As usual, at eleven o’clock sharp, the palace doors opened to admit the morning visitors. They swarmed in like butterflies, flitting from Titian, Tintoretto and Bellini to marble statues scattered about the halls. We came in from the piazza, Mary Rose and I, veiled and dressed in black from head to toe. A stagnant air blew in from the Lagoon. This was a cool place, a sanctuary from the glaring morning sun.
We had been in Venice for two months, and now it was August when the canals began to smell and buildings felt oppressive. There was no one else in the family to give Great Aunt Lucinda a Christian burial in this city she called home, and so I arrived in Venice with Aunt Beatrice and my cousin, Mary Rose—packed off with them like a darkly wrapped parcel to represent our side of the family. After all, Papa could not leave his Parish. I was the second eldest sister of five motherless girls and so this duty was presented to me. It was my first visit to Italy.
I had hoped to see museums and piazzas and maybe attend the opera, but there was very little visiting anybody or anything. Rather, we made endless journeys to and from the island where Aunt Lucinda was laid to rest on San Michelle, a sanctuary in the Lagoon, which everyone in Venice called Cemetery Island. Amazingly, after I had abandoned hope of an escape from the heat, flies and smells rising from the canal below Great Aunt Lucinda’s apartment, we were offered a hint of freedom. Mary Rose and I were to have a day to ourselves at last because that morning Aunt Beatrice suggested we visited the Doge’s Palace.
‘I have correspondence to attend to, so girls, do run along today and enjoy yourselves. Can you please visit San Michelle in the afternoon? I want you to make sure the Headstone is correct.’ She chewed the top of her pen and moved her glasses down her nose towards the tip. She peered over them. ‘Well, it’s time you come out of full mourning. We’ll visit acquaintances later this week. Perhaps we can attend The Marriage of Figaro on Saturday.’ She bustled about her armoire, hands fluttering, searching out letters, papers and envelopes. ‘Ah, here it is, Mr Methuen’s letter, lying on top of your writing case and still unanswered.’ She looked straight at me, her eyes sharp and piercing. ‘Absence may not make the heart grow fonder, Emma. When you return you will write to him, my dear.’ With those words, she thrust Francis’s last letter at me. I took it and tucked it inside the writing case, leaving it on the desk.
‘Yes, Aunt Beatrice,’ I said, though I had no desire to write to him at all.
‘And don’t forget to carry your parasols,’ Aunt Beatrice added. ‘The sun is strong today. You will continue to observe protocol, my dears, so the black ones please.’