She whisked her monstrous parasol from the bench, placed her foot carefully on the ground, and took a few steps forward. I stood to attention, ready to catch her were she to falter and fall. She did not. She hobbled into the gallery, past St Sebastian who stared down at us from his framed agony. I thought about Francis Methuen. He was kind and I said as much to Mary Rose. She shook her head, rolled her eyes, and changing the subject of conversation, said, ‘Help me to a gondola, Emma. If I rest today I can attend the opera. It’s only a graze. Go to the island and see the headstone is in order. Perhaps then, Mama will not exchange the opera for a visit to the cemetery.’ She sighed. ‘If only we can wear lawn soon. I have almost forgotten what it is like to wear a cool gown.’
I said nothing in response to this, but to dress appropriately for summer would indeed be a release. Yet, to voice such a desire only made our suffering worse. I took my cousin by the arm, led her past the painting and back through the palace. It was past noon and the galleries were already emptying. As if summoned by a gong, tourists would flock onto vaporettos and gondolas like flamingos to the waters, their voices merging into a soporific hum as they compared visits to the Municipal Gardens, St Mark’s Cathedral or the Ducal Palace. We had watched the same mid-morning parade from our windows since our arrival in Venice. They would enjoy a delicious luncheon and sleep late into the afternoon. If Mary Rose was content to return, eat lunch with Aunt Beatrice and take her rest too, why the novelty of visiting the island alone would be a stolen pleasure.
Only a scattering of visitors remained and the gallery was hushed when a man of around five and thirty years, wearing a Panama hat, wandered inwards towards the courtyard we had just abandoned, moving against the tide of visitors. He paused for a moment and wrote something in a little notebook. At last, he reached one of the paintings of St Sebastian. He stopped and stared, moving about peering at the arrows from different angles. Mary Rose shook herself free of me and sank down on a padded bench in the middle of the room. I placed myself with my back to her, arranged my skirts, and watched the man as he observed the saint. He turned and smiled at me and I saw his face was broad and friendly. Dark hair flopped over his forehead. He expressed an openness that belonged more to the Americans here than to us English. His whole bearing was casual and his linen jacket draped from his shoulders. A canvas satchel hung loosely across his chest. I was possessed with empathy for his sense of freedom. The air behind me moved and Mary Rose arose like a ship in full sail. I stood up and escorted her through the gallery towards the entrance.
‘Emma, since we are here, you must stand on the Bridge of Sighs. It will only take a moment. This way, come and I shall lean on you. It’s through the entrance to the Old Prison. Here it is.’ She gestured to an open doorway.
We entered a closed space and stood on the cramped bridge that connected the palace with the prison. Once prisoners had crossed this bridge, Mary Rose told me, and they rarely returned. I leaned over and watched the passage of the canal below and wondered what sadness lay beyond the dark prison itself. I began to shiver as a dank smell arose from the stones and the dampness seeped through the bombazine of my gown. Mary Rose laughed. ‘You look quite pale, Emma. Do you see ghosts?’