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.’
By half past ten, Mary Rose and I were drinking coffee in the foyer of The Ambassador. I was reading a small guidebook to The Doges Palace and had just replaced my cup on its saucer when I heard someone arguing with the receptionist. I glanced up. Just over the hallway a man in a panama hat banged his fist in anger on the front table. He was American and seemed to be haggling over his bill. The sun was slanting along the corridor towards the desk drowning him in light so I couldn’t see his face. A stream of Italian quickly rising to a crescendo followed. Mary Rose looked up from her notebook, just as he turned towards the entrance, about to stalk off.
‘My goodness, Emma, I do believe that’s Henry James, you know, that writer. I’ve seen him here before. Aunt Lucinda knew him. I wonder should I introduce myself.’
‘Umm, not the right moment, I should imagine.’
At that moment the man threw coins on the counter and stalked off loudly muttering something about paying a sovereign for coffee, bacon and eggs.
‘He’s mean,’ I whispered. Mary Rose shrugged her shoulders.
We rummaged around in our purses and found money for our own morning coffee. We made sure to leave a generous tip, gathered up our parasols, paid and left fot the palace which opened at eleven. Henry James had vanished into the crowds heading in the direction of the Municipal Gardens.
For an hour we wandered through halls filled with marble columns and looked with indifference at paintings. The assault of such vivid colour upon my senses and the cruelty of martyrdom expressed in the images left me with a sense of unease. I never again wanted to see another painting of St Sebastian pierced with arrows but we were not to escape for there he was hanging in the last gallery watching from the corner as we passed through an archway into the quiet of a small courtyard. We settled in a stone arbour. I remarked that the day was so hot, it would be pleasant to walk among the cypresses on Cemetery Island. I suggested we ought to find flowers to lay by the new headstone.
Nothing happened as we had planned. Mary Rose knocked her foot against the bottom of our stone seat and hurt her heel. As she attempted to stand, she banged her toe. ‘Emma, I can’t go on,’ she declared at once. ‘You must continue on your own. I won’t spoil your day.’
‘No, we can visit the island tomorrow or the following day,’ I protested. ‘I’ll take you back. Besides, I have a letter to write.’ One I had no desire to write.
‘Rather you than me,’ she said voicing my own thoughts. ‘Francis Methuen is a fossil, so serious. You’ll have no fun when you’re married. He’s too old. Break it off and if not, make the most of your freedom now.’ She stared at my dark gown. ‘If you can, that is, clad as we are like nuns.’
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 kindly 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 loose 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 along 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?’
‘This place is unhealthy,’ I said sharply and removed my hand from the balustrade. The fingers of my black glove shone with slime. I pulled out my handkerchief and wiped it away. As we emerged from the doors and into the street beyond, I spotted the American again. He was seated on some stone steps and glanced up as we passed. Opening his satchel, he drew out a flask. Overcome with embarrassment, I swept us on to the landings.
The inside of our long boat was covered in black cloth so it was as if we had entered a coffin. We leaned back into the upholstery and listened to the oars plash and the slaps of small waves on the boat’s prow. Even Mary Rose was quiet. She sat as serene as a Carpaccio virgin. We slid to a halt by the Rialto and my cousin disembarked. She started through the doors into our building, then turned around and called, ‘I’ll tell mother you will most probably return with Mrs Arnott. Remember, she told us yesterday when she called on Mama that she intended visiting her husband’s grave today.’
She turned and was gone. I felt the most wonderful sense of excitement as I instructed the boatman to return to San Marco. There, I dined alone in a café on the piazza and sat admiring the façade of St Mark’s Cathedral thinking how much I agreed with Mr Ruskin. The stones were indeed more interesting than the paintings for they contained the true Venice because as you turned every whispering corner or sailed under bridges centuries unfolded from the images captured in carvings. A flower seller wandered by the restaurant front. I called her over and purchased three yellow roses for Aunt Lucinda’s grave. I paid for my lunch and left. As I ambled through the piazza I spotted a familiar Panama hat bobbing along towards the direction of the sea front. For a moment he was before me and a heartbeat later he was concealed by a crocodile of nuns who were marching into the Cathedral. I lost him.
The vaparetto swarmed with passengers, all heading for the islands—Murano to visit glass emporiums or to the Lido to bathe. I wondered how many would set down on the cemetery island of San Michelle. The air was cool and sweet-smelling. The wind had changed and blew from the sea. I found a place to sit, then arranged myself. Looking across towards the sea that lapped against the side of the craft, a Panama hat was almost obscuring my view. He was on vaparetto already, on the curve of the seat across from me, just by the prow. A family sat with him, a mother, two daughters, I suspected, because they looked alike, and a small boy who was eating a peach. Further along the bench, the father carried a basket of neatly folded clothing. I thought these to be bathing outfits. They were speaking in French. I could almost lean forward and touch the American with my parasol. He sat watching the sea with indifference on his countenance, his satchel placed across his knees, his arms folded across his breast like St Sebastian about to be martyred.
The French mother pulled out a handkerchief and began to wipe her son’s face when of a sudden the boy snatched it, wriggled from his mother and ran past the American. He leaned over the side and began to trail the handkerchief towards the water.
‘Viens ici, Pierre. Viens ici tout de suite,’ the mother shouted at him. She stood up on the rocking boat, pushed past the American and tried to catch hold of her son. Reaching out to catch his shirt she grasped air. The child was gone. Passengers rushed to the edge of the boat. They were pointing. The child was bobbing up and down, his striped sailor shirt bright against grey water and his blond head held parallel to the wave. He thrashed out and began to swim alongside the boat. What if the boy should be pulled under and drowned? It was ironic that we should be sailing to the island of the dead. My friend stared for a split second at my heavy black parasol. Immediately grasping his meaning, I handed it to him. He leaned over the side and stretched it out to the thrashing child who grabbed hold of its handle. The boy reached up to be drawn in. Arms pulled him to safety. Towels appeared as if from nowhere. In fact, they came out of bright voluminous bags carried by Italians travelling to the beach huts along the Lido. My parasol was returned to me.
It trailed seaweed and as I removed the slime with a cloth the father whipped from the basket, I laughed my relief. The child had survived thanks to some quick thinking and a ridiculous parasol.
‘Are you so long by the Adriatic you are used to catching seaweed like a mermaid?’ the American remarked. He extended a long slender hand. ‘Theodore James.’
I felt a foolish sense of deja vue and stared at him. No, he was not that bad-tempered man we had seen in the Ambassador, though he shared his name. Mr James shook my extended hand and we exchanged a miniscule string of seaweed. Laughing and removing it with the cloth I said, ‘Emma Matilda Plumptre. No indeed, Sir, I am no mermaid and I have not been in Venice long.’ A sigh slipped from my lips. ‘In many ways it feels as if two months has been an eternity. I have come with my Aunt Beatrice and my cousin to bury a relative who died months ago. Consumption.
‘You are visiting the cemetery? A coincidence. I am travelling to San Michelle also. You see, I am a newspaper man. I send gossip from Venice to New York. Today, I am writing about the islands of the Lagoon.’
‘I see,’ I replied and we fell silent.
For a while we never spoke. Since the incident everyone had rearranged themselves and I was jammed in beside him. The French family were now seated under the awning away from the sun’s glare, Pierre wrapped in towels and dejected, his head down, after a serious scolding. As our moment of quiet continued I was aware that Mr James and I were touching between the linen of his jacket and the bombazine sleeves of mine. It was a strange sensation and I could not decide whether or not I should move away. As there was no further conversation, I began to consider him as I felt that slight, not unpleasant pressure on my arm. Was he married or promised in engagement? Like myself and Francis Methuen! As we chugged towards the landing at San Michelle, I realised that no conversation had not mattered. There was no need for any because I had begun to feel comfortable in his presence. Breaking into my musing, he stood up and said, ‘Why are the English so formal? Why in such a climate must you observe every detail of mourning? Is it not enough to be sorrowful about the loss of a loved one and to visit a cemetery with a gift of flowers?’
I held up my flowers, a little crushed now. ‘The Vikings burned the dead on ships,’ I said.
‘And had a celebration,’ he said.
‘I would love that when I die,’ I said.
‘And hopefully not any time soon.’
He smiled and I nodded. ‘One never knows.’
A few passengers were disembarking. We joined them. ‘Mourning is three months for an aunt, Mr James.’ My tone became solemn. ‘Already it has been two.’
‘You see, I am correct. The English are obsessed with ceremony. A whole quarter year is excessive, and please do not call me Mr James. My friends call me Theo. I feel I should call you Emma. I’ve known you for at least an hour…and more if we include the palace.’
‘Of course, the agony of St Sebastian.’
‘Grotesque but fascinating.’
‘I did notice.’
Theo offered his arm and we walked together through the cemetery. It would be absurd to keep passing each other on the pathways, he remarked and I agreed. We would be constantly nodding in the polite way the English favoured and sometimes Americans too, he said. He bowed and I accepted his companionship. The island basked in the slumbering afternoon. I felt the ghostly echoes of so many souls slipping along the graveyard’s pathways. A gravestone had worked its way loose from the ground as if a single dead soul had made a bid for freedom, back into the living world.
‘Don’t you feel it?’ I said turning to him.
‘What? Feel what?’
‘Ghosts lurking here?’ I said.
‘What a peculiar thought.’
He stopped, bringing us to a halt and looked at me, his eyes puzzled. ‘You are unhappy?’
‘No, not exactly,’ I said quickly. ‘I don’t intend to be morbid. I just feel ghosts haunt Venice. They make their way over the lagoon into the passageways and flit across bridges. I fancy they could travel back to a distant time and are liberated. They borrow the stones of Venice as a temporary home.’
We rounded another cypress and we had reached Aunt Lucinda’s grave which lay in the corner of the graveyard beside a mossy wall. We stood before her gravestone and scrutinised it carefully. It looked clean and new. It occurred to me that soon the cemetery would be full and then where would the foreigners bury their dead.
‘It might sink into the earth,’ I said aloud.
He bent down and peered at the stone. ‘No, this should endure. It is beautifully carved, like an arched window.’ He touched it, passing his fingers over the tracery, appreciating the design’s simplicity. A raised pattern of flowers climbed around the borders encircling the letters. How would it appear a hundred years from now? Would the lettering disappear just as Aunt Lucinda’s soul escaped to wander canal-side streets? I laid the roses on her grave as Theo read aloud the inscription on the headstone.
To the Dear, Dear Memory of Alice Lucinda
Youngest Daughter of
The Rev Henry Western Plumptre
God Took her Home
June 11th 1895 Aged 75
‘She was my grandfather’s youngest sister. We share a surname for she never married.’
‘Do you miss her?’ He touched my hand lightly and it was as if a spirit had passed between our worlds and lingered for a second.
‘She had a long life. I hardly knew her.’ I looked up at him. ‘In September we shall leave.’
It was sad to think about our departure because today I was totally happy. Today I was my own person for the first time in many, many months. Theo tactfully went and sat on a bench a little way along the path, not recognising the true reason for my melancholy. I whispered a small prayer for Aunt Lucinda. A breeze blew through the cypresses carrying on it the scent of jasmine. My mood lifted and I joined Theo on the bench.
‘Emma.’ He paused after speaking my name. ‘I know we must return to the boats now, but I hope I may see you again, if I may, if I were not intruding.’
He lifted my hand and held it for a moment before allowing it to drop.
‘I shall ask Aunt Beatrice to invite you to tea. Her day is Tuesday.’
He rustled around in his jacket pocket and produced a card. I turned it over. He was living in the Friari in a house with a stone carving above it depicting Saint George and the Dragon. I knew the very Church and said we would send a messenger with an invitation when Aunt Beatrice resumed her tea parties.
Then as misfortune would have it, Mrs Arnott appeared on the pathway.
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 stone masons 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 replied.
I was sure Mary Rose smiled and winked at me.