She was walking with her friend, Mrs. Norris, and was dabbing at her eyes daintily with a lace-edged handkerchief. They spotted us. Mrs. Norris exclaimed, ‘Why, Mr. James, how peculiar to see you here.’ She stared at me and I could feel colour mount my cheeks. ‘And you, Miss Plumptre, how odd to meet you here with Mr. James. I had no idea you were acquainted. I was about to invite Mr. James to tea next week. He knows our little soirees well.’ She sniffed haughtily. ‘Do give my regards to your aunt, my dear.’
Before Theo could utter a word, she took her companion’s arm and swept her beyond the cypress trees. Mrs. Arnott was still weeping.
‘Insufferable woman,’ Theo whispered. ‘I only visited them once. If we hurry we can avoid her company on the way back.’
‘A matchmaker and a gossip,’ I said mischievously.
As we reached St Marco, the Campanile bell began to ring. We paused to listen. Five in the afternoon. Just as the bell echoed and faded a tapping sound emerged in short bursts from the nearby Cathedral.
‘The hammers are everywhere,’ Theo said. ‘Because we are always moving or talking we hardly notice them. We forget they exist.’
I concentrated and realised it was true. Constant repairs executed by carpenters and stonemasons had been there as a backdrop all the time.
Theo continued, ‘Always around us, reminding us the fabric of life needs constant renewal if we are to go on…like the boy today…the child who might have drowned. He was given a second chance at life.’ He smiled again, a generous smile, a little curious, in the way he had done all those hours earlier before the painting of San Sebastian.
He escorted me to my gondola for my journey back up the Grand Canal. He helped me in and pressed my hand firmly before the gondolier pushed his pole against the jetty and we were off. I looked back. He walked a few steps, turned, and waved again. He was silhouetted against the stonework as we slipped away into dark waters.
Mary Rose was sewing lace onto a white collar as I entered the drawing-room. There she was, my optimistic cousin with her ankle propped on a cushion. At her armoire as if time stood arrested, my aunt was writing. She looked up. ‘Did you have a pleasant day, Emma?’
I removed my jacket, hung it on the cloak stand, and placed my parasol in its slot on the bottom. I turned and said, ‘Yes, Aunt Beatrice, but a boy nearly drowned and was pulled back into the vaparetto.’
‘Oh my goodness, Emma, what a shock. Thank the Lord he was rescued. The gravestone was erected I take it?’
Yes, Aunt Beatrice.’
Aunt Beatrice looked at me over her glasses which had slid to the bottom of her nose. ‘There is another letter for you from Mr. Methuen on the side table. And, we have been invited to tea on Tuesday, by Mrs. Norris.’
‘Oh,’ I said, hoping Aunt Beatrice would not question me too closely. ‘I saw her today. With Mrs. Arnott.’ I lifted up Francis Methuen’s letter and added, ‘I shall save this for later. You know, Aunt Beatrice, I do believe Francis Methuen deserves a companion more in sympathy with his own vocation. I intend writing to break off the engagement.’
Aunt Beatrice lifted her glasses right off her nose. ‘But what will everybody say, Emma? It is expected.’
‘I don’t believe I shall ever know,’ I archly replied.
Mary Rose smiled and winked at me.