We had set out from Padua that morning, and covered the 20 mile distance to Fusina with more speed than I had expected, though also more jolting than I found desirable: the roads are in shocking condition. I find myself looking forward to abandoning both horse and carriage for the smoothly gliding gondolas and the maze of gentle waterways we are promised in Venice, although I expect they too will prove uncomfortable in their own way.
From Fusina we embarked on our first boat, to sail west across the lagoon to Venice, which rose up before us like a city in a dream, all slim towers and gleaming domes, ornate palaces and richly decorated churches jostling together. (There are slums, too, of course, many of them, but one doesn't see those at first, so beautiful is that first view of the city.)
How strange it seems! Quite unlike any other city I have seen. The sea laps familiarly at the steps of grand houses and churches alike, and scores upon scores of slim dark boats throng about; the cries of the boatmen touting for our business mingle with the screech of the seagulls. The gondolas are of a striking design, all precisely the same, with one side slightly, almost unnoticeably, longer than the other, and a piece of iron-work like a large-toothed comb upon the prow (this is the ferro di prua, which counterbalances the weight of the gondolier at the back). I understand that at one time the gondolas were richly decorated, but sumptuary laws (of which the Venetians are surprisingly fond for a people so in love with grand display) forbad it, and afterwards they came to be painted black, as they are today.
It is hard to grasp the scale of Venice: it is at once magnificent, grand, with more towers and graceful palaces than one can count, and at the same time narrow, private and small, with its narrow canals and narrower calle, and nowhere you can step back and take in a view of the whole. Each area, even each tiny piazza, is a neighbourhood to itself, parochial and inward looking. The effect on the traveller is overwhelming, and left to myself I believe I should have stood amazed for some time, not knowing which way to turn or where to go.
Luckily, of course, I was not alone, and I could rely on my travelling companion Nergüi to take decisive charge, choosing a boatman and giving clear direction to the house in which she had elected to lodge. Many of the buildings here have two doors, one for the land and one for the sea, of which the sea gate is the most important, being the one to which visitors arrive and from which the residents depart to go about their business, and so it was to the canal entrance we went.
Our destination was a handful of rooms in a building that had once been rather imposing, but had now been divided again and again to make small residences in which the remnants of grandeur warred with current poverty. One such suite of rooms belonged to a painter of steadily increasing renown, Rosalba C– , with whom Nergüi planned to stay. Rosalba proved to be a young woman of pleasant but easily daunted character, and some conventional prettiness: a work done in pastels, soft fair hair and soft fair skin, touched with the soft pink blush of youth, and no hard edges anywhere.
There was, it is true, a trifling difficulty with our arrangements at first, for we had no money with which to pay her, but such was the stately assurance with which Nergüi informed her that hospitality to us would surely be followed by good luck and professional success, and so outside our potential landlady's experience were Nergüi's foreign looks and confident bearing, not to mention the strange souvenirs she carried with her, that she found herself agreeing and welcoming us in before she had regathered her wits. And I am pleased to report the rooms were at least tolerably clean and certainly very well lit, as befits the home of a painter. In both respects they were an improvement on our lodgings in Padua.
Having resigned herself to her unexpected lodgers, Rosalba proved herself an attentive and vivacious hostess, seeing to out needs in constant stream of comments and questions – why, what an unusual flower! And is it the fashion in your country to take a plant with you on your travels? And what a striking and unusual hat – is it made from real feathers? And is that really a little sphinx, and is it as intelligent as it looks? (To which the answer was of course no – a charming young woman, but sadly ill educated, unable to distinguish between a sphinx and a griffin – and yes, if not more so. But it was impossible to be offended by her questions, when they were so friendly and well meant.)
We had only just settled ourselves comfortably when a visitor was announced, not for Rosalba as might be expected, but for Nergüi, who knew no one and was making her first visit to the city. The visitor announced himself only as 'Sebastian', with no hint as to his family or position, nor was he was known to any of us, although he came into our presence with a confident self-assurance of one who has no thought he may be turned away.
The light of the window picked out for a moment the touches of silver in his hair and subdued richness of his clothes, and then he passed into the shadow where Nergüi sat, bowing gracefully to her. If the unnatural appearance of her eyes surprised him, he had the manners and self control to keep it hidden; it is possible, of course, that some description of her had already spread, the Venetians being fond of gossip. Indeed, I can think of no other reason he should choose to visit a complete stranger, with no connections and no apparent wealth – he himself, though discretely dressed in black, still carried himself with an air of distinction suggestive of one in whose accustomed sphere are to be found only those both well connected and rich.
For all the lightness of his step and his slender build, with no sign of either the thick muscularity or the corpulence to which a career either of arms or of mercantile pursuits inclines so many of his fellow citizens, he had left the years of his youth well behind; the openness of youth he had left behind as well, and his face, while not unfriendly, was as impossible to read as the work of any mascheraro. Indeed, they made a fine pair, Nergüi with her dark, unreadable eyes that seemed all pupil, and he with his expression like a finely modeled mask.
He made an elegant apology for intruding, while quite avoiding any mention of who he was or why he believed Nergüi's advice worth having; she herself betrayed no curiosity on either point, but professed herself willing to consider any matter he might put to her.
'I have a …' He paused for a moment, weighing his words. 'Let us say I have a business matter. Well, we are a mercantile people, after all, so perhaps that is the best way to describe it in truth: I have before me a very beneficial opportunity, one promising not only present wealth but future security. But a promise is not a certainty.
'To build securely upon the successes of the past with ever greater triumphs – triumphs indeed undreamed of by my forefathers – may seem the safest course, at least so far as any venture may be considered safe, but the world changes, and we change with it, if we are wise. Perhaps the future lies in some other direction? Would I do better to listen to those who say Venice's best interest lies upon the land; that we should consolidate and expand our holdings there, turning our backs upon the sea which has been our chief support for so many years?'
He paused again, the faintest of frowns troubling the reserved detachment of his gaze, as though he were puzzling out how best to express himself, although I have no doubt he had considered already precisely what he would say, and to what use others might put any hint as to his intent, or detail as to his way of thinking. Such men do not lightly admit others to even the antechamber of their thoughts.
His frown deepened for a moment, although he had come upon some thought that troubled him. 'And then, also, too much success in any one direction is apt to breed disaster, and the ancients did well when they spoke of hubris. Do I already go too far upon the path I have set myself, trespassing beyond the limits set upon human endeavour? If we have learnt anything by our commerce with the sea, surely it is that fortune is changeable and fickle, passing from sunny calm to violent tempest before any but the most farsighted sailor has warning. Am I misled by a purely temporary success, and charting a course as foredoomed to disaster as a little fishing boat caught up in a storm?'
Nergüi listened to him impassively, her hands folded in the depths of her ruffled sleeves, and her posture as upright and still as an owl upon a branch. You would have thought she was accustomed to having her wisdom sought on a daily basis by kings and beggars alike. And I suppose there is some truth in that, after all, although not everyone contents themselves with mere asking. Let us hope we need not depart from Venice as precipitously as some of our previous lodgings – why so very many people are so eager to know the future is beyond me. It is so rarely pleasant.
'I have heard,' Nergüi said in her quiet, considered way. 'I have heard in my time many stories where travellers seeking direction are advised that on the one path they will go hungry, on another lose their possessions, that yet a third leads to their own deaths, and so forth. But to speak truly the path matters little: to the left waits sorrow, and to the right also, and in the end there is no escape from it.'
Sebastian smiled a little at that. 'It is a bitter medicine you sell. Our own pharmacists would not stay long in business if they provided no sweeter pill.'
'It was not by my request you came to me. And there are confectioners aplenty in Venice, if what you desired were sweetness. But it is well said that the morning is wiser than the night – return tomorrow and I see what answer I can give you.'
'And your price?'
'You have nothing I want – but I have promised the owner of these rooms professional advancement for her hospitality. She is a painter of portraits.'
Promising he would return on the morrow, Sebastian took Nergüi's hand and bowed elegantly to kiss it; the constrained grace of his movements and the polite expression on his face did not falter for an instant, although he must have seen that her right hand is shrunken and withered half away.
Already turning to go, his departure was interrupted by another arrival, in this case a potential client seeking out our landlady. She – the client, not Rosalba – had something of the look of a typical Venetian beauty; only a straight Greek nose gave her a slightly foreign air; that and her faint, enigmatic smile, which would have been at home on some ancient kore or kouros. She presented, indeed, a beguiling picture, combining a soft hesitation of manner – the shyness of new violets in April – with an almost unvoiced hint of self-sufficient confidence, so self-sufficient there was no need to make a show of it to others. Only the queer curve of her lips gave her away as one who finds all mortal strife no more than a mild amusement, rather than the delicate, uncertain maiden she seemed.
She had been announced as Signorina Mercurven, and desired to engage Rosalba to paint her portrait (delighting Rosalba, who was inclined to attribute the good fortune of a new client to Nergüi's promised fee, although Nergüi herself murmured that she intended to pay more handsomely than a mere commission, and had had no idea lodgings could be had so cheap. I expect, though, that Rosalba had resigned herself to expecting no payment at all, and was content to provide the rooms from curiosity.) As it happened, she – still the client, not Rosalba – was already known to Sebastian, and must have been on terms of some intimacy with him, as he addressed her familiarly as Modeste. (It has taken me a long time to become used to the European habit of collecting a variety of names – forenames and surnames and titles – to be used at different times and by different people; in the country of my birth it is quite different, and one name suffices per person).
In a moment of perception which persuaded me Rosalba might have some talent as an artist, she recognized something of the dual nature I had seen in the Sig.na Mercurven, and proposed to paint her poised between the sea and the land, the two poles of Venice's existence.
The next morning I rose early to explore the city, setting out at that interesting point where homeward bound revelers mingle with brisk salesmen just setting up for the day. The streets rang with the cries of traders selling sweet raisin biscuits and wine, or cups of bitter chocolate; the canals were filled with boats, the sailors shouting good-naturedly to each other.
I explored around the Rialto, and on to the Doge's palace, in the grounds of which is kept a winged lioness (a handsome beast, but not intelligent), gift of the King of Sicily. She had recently given birth to three cubs, which were a great wonder to the local people, who flocked to see them, chattering approvingly amongst themselves that this was a splendid omen for the Doge's forthcoming marriage – he is to marry an Adriatic princess, Jadranka, the marriage cementing an alliance for which the Venetians have hoped for some time.
Returning midmorning I found Rosalba setting out with great excitement: she had received a sudden request to paint the engagement portrait of the Doge's intended bride, a great and undreamt of honour. I leapt lightly into the boat after her, just as the gondolier was pushing away from the bank, meaning to accompany her, for I thought it would be interesting to meet the future Dogaressa.
The canals here are as narrow and crooked as the streets, twisting every which way between the grand facades of now shabby buildings. I will say that, for all Venice is famed for water, it is a city of light. Nowhere else in Italy have I seen such architecture: confidently asymmetrical and pierced all about with windows and loggias and balconies. The buildings themselves seem to glow with soft colours where time and the sea air have mellowed the costly grandeur of their original painting, turning the vermilion and the ultramarine and the gilding to a soft and pleasant patina, and all is designed that the light may pour inwards, illuminating rooms and courtyards alike, until it must be that Venetians with their massed buildings and tiny islands are on better terms with Phoebus Apollo than their landed neighbours with spacious gardens in which they rarely deign to walk.
Such land as there is in Venice is marshy – not so much ground as swamp – and the weight of a stone building could hardly be supported. For this reason the Venetians build in brick and stucco, although they love stone, the more rare and precious the better, and wherever they may be put you will find porphyry or marble roundels arranged decoratively along the buildings' facades, and in the courtyards coloured tiles of jasper, alabaster and serpentine, chalcedony and malachite.
The canals themselves are not as lovely as one might hope, as most of the houses have drains emptying directly into the nearest canal, into which is also thrown the garbage. Then there are the rats which infest Venice, of which some number drown and are found floating bloated and decaying amid the refuse; here and there the remains of a pigeon also floats by, for Venice is full of pigeons. Every year a flock of them is released, and such poor people as can catch one may have it for supper, but those that escape are afterwards granted indemnity and may not be killed.
At last one comes out into the lagoon, but that is not the end of the canal – no, it continues on, its sides now marked out not by buildings but by bricole, wooden piles jutting up from the water, each as like as not topped by a sea bird like a living finial. Between these we went, the gondolier angling his stroke to propel us not only forwards but down, protected by the blessing of the sea gods, diving into the dark water, in which we were almost blind, the only light a faint shimmer from the six-toothed ferro in front of us. It takes a skilled gondolier to navigate these underwater ways, navigating mostly from memory, having traced out the paths upon the surface often for years before venturing below, conscious always that to miss one's way and to leave the confines of the bricole is to drown as helplessly in the choking waters as a fish gasping on land.
(Speaking of fish, I cannot recommend to highly a visit the fish market, which is hard by the Rialto, and worth seeing, especially as I did at dawn, when it is at its most busy. Every sort of mollusk is there, sea snails and scallops, cockles and winkles, mussels and clams: great baskets of long, thin ones, boxes of tiny ones like so many coffers of sequin coins; crabs too, spider crabs and shore crabs, tied up and struggling against their bonds; the flabby bodies of octopuses stained with their own funereal ink; dishes of tiny cuttlefish. Fish lie everywhere, heaped in baskets and spread out on boards, wrapped carefully in wet seaweed and stuffed anyhow in crates. The street itself, slippery with fish guts, glitters in the early light with countless silver scales. Truly, it is a beautiful sight.)
Anyway, at last we reached the doorway we sought – the only doorway, since here as one might expect the houses have the water door alone – and paying off the gondolier entered in.
There are no sharp corners in the old palaces beneath the sea – the walls, the doors, such furniture as there is, are all smooth and rounded as river stones, or curved to strange designs by the inexorable currents; the fabrics hang thick as kelp, falling in huge folds and billowing curves, drifting so slowly from shape to shape you would hardly know they moved. Here and there among them little fishes dart, shimmering fire for a moment then gone again into the enveloping gloom. In one or two rooms only some effort had been made to welcome foreigners – a chair or couch from Venice above, perhaps, set incongruously alone among the strange riches of the sea; rather more often some splendidly wrought ornament, or a marble sculpture, or a painting, displayed just as a Venetian might display some expensive curiosity from distant lands. Otherwise the furnishings were traditional: elaborately carved and branching poles in place of seats or beds; great clam-like shells for chests; brilliantly coloured anemones in blue or green or purple, taking the place of tables, their winding tentacles holding fast whatever object is given them, untroubled by the tugging currents of the constant tide.
Since it is rare for the people of the sea to have such close and ready association with the peoples of the land, I should say a few words also as to the Lady Jadranka's appearance. As to face and upper body, I am persuaded she was as fair a woman as any in Venice, as such things are judged, and dressed in a dashing but simple style that set her apart from the luxurious ornaments and complicated decorations so loved by the Venetians. Below was the tail, fine and strong and shimmering in the dark waters with a glowing richness of colour I have seen equaled only in the orange groves of the Hesperides or the autumnal persimmons of China. The jointure of the tail and body I did not see, for it was decorously covered by a girdle of fabric, and indeed the material of her bodice was fashioned of some stuff that had been skillfully worked to an appearance very like her own natural scales, so that at first sight it seemed the upper and lower parts were of the same type.
When we were shown into her presence, we found her seated, if that is the right word, in the normal manner of her people, her tail curled round a branched pole of ebony inlaid with mother of pearl. Just so have I seen the little hippocamps curled round a spur of coral or a frond of weed. She had had brought out, however, a couch of European design, which she thought more appropriate for her engagement portrait, showing suitable respect for the ways of her bridegroom's people, which was diplomatic of her, for I cannot say it looked nearly as comfortable for her as her accustomed seat.
Her voice, when she spoke, had the haunting melody of the sirens, in which is blended the calm of a summer's day, when the little waves play gently at the edge of the shore, and the majesty of the terrible storm, in which the waves rear up as walls, lashed by the remorseless wind. She tried, however, with that same diplomacy, to speak lightly and to put us out our ease, most especially Rosalba, who seemed uncertain and self-conscious in such a foreign place.
'Just so have I seen women of your people lie in paintings,' she said, arranging herself with decorative effect upon the couch. 'Do I make a suitable picture, or would you have me otherwise?' The perfect line of her mouth curled into a private smile, as tempting and as untouchable as the path of the moonlight on the dark sea. 'After all, you see me entirely at your disposal.'
The dispensation that permits those invited into the watery realm, or those passing along appointed ways, to move and breathe as though upon their native land applies likewise to the works of their hands, so that it is possible for a painter to paint as well below the waves as above, a smith to forge iron, a scribe to write, and so forth, so long as they have the favour of the sea gods. At least, their tools behave in their accustomed manner: there may be other problems. For example, as I have mentioned, the waters of the lagoon are turgid with silt and mud, and the sun's light barely penetrates them. Nor are the sea creatures, whose vision is acute, much troubled by this, and such lighting as their palaces affords – a matter of some phosphorescent touches here or there, more for adornment than for use, and a few chandeliers about which crackle the storm lights sailors know as the fire of St Elmo – is no more generous than is found in the poorest Venetian lodging house, and quite insufficient for a painter used to the varied and beautiful light natural to Venice above – the rich golden light of the afternoon; the pearlescent glow of the early morning mist, the strikingly vivid reds of the sunset. Therefore it turned out Rosalba could not, in fact, begin to paint at once, and the lady Jadranka had to stir herself from her careful pose to order servants, sending them rushing to and fro to gather up every lamp and lantern in the place, and it was some time before she could again arrange herself upon the couch, which delay I think irritated her, but not so much that she did not instantly forgive Rosalba, seeing her perched again at her easel, her china-doll prettiness at hopeless odds with the strange, dark grandeur of her setting.
For myself, I daresay my sight is as fine as any creature of the sea, and I thought the light quite sufficient, but then again I have no skill in painting, and would not know even how to hold a brush.
Once again she tried to set Rosalba at ease, distracting her alike from the unfamiliar surroundings and from the sense of awe-inspiring majesty, befitting a daughter of Oceanus, that was innately Jadranka's, however much she strove to disguise it with modern clothes and inconsequential chatting.
'Tell me,' she asked, 'does it fatigue you to go always on two legs and weighted to the ground? It has always seemed to me it must be tiring.'
Rosalba smiled and shook her head. 'To me, it seems just as terrible to live in this gloomy murk, with the mud and the silt forever in your eyes.'
'It is true that Venice prides itself upon its many beauties, and with justice, if you are its exemplar.'
'You flatter me – I know well how many better painters have graced my city.'
'I was not speaking only of your art. But tell me about Venice. I hear snatches of gossip from passing boatmen, but that is all. Is it true that your glassblowers have been banned from working within the city and driven to an outer island?'
'Yes, but for fear of fire only, not that we have ceased to value them. It's an amazing thing, isn't it, that sand should become glass, and that glass can be wrought to such delicate shapes? Sometimes I will hold a wineglass in my hand and just turn it, letting it catch the light, imagining the furnace that transmuted it, and the secret craft of the glassblower that created it – but all such secrets come to Venice in the end. There is no true child of Venice who will not in their travels gather up the riches of the world and bring home the choicest parts, whether that is art or knowledge.'
'Or corpses. Your habit of collecting those has always struck me as decidedly odd. St Mark, St Sebastian, St Lucy, St Theodore, and so many others whose names I forget… but no doubt you have your reasons. Certainly you have collected the crafts of the world – even our lace, which we create so effortlessly from the sea foam, you have recreated with painstaking labour, although I cannot quite believe it is worth the sight of those who must make it, year be year, squinting in their tiny rooms: our way, there, is much superior.'
'Yes, my mother was a lace-maker, and I helped her as a child: you can have no idea with what delight I would have welcomed the ability to make lace as you do, rather than hunch for hours every day over my needle.'
They trailed off then into a lengthy and doubtless well-informed discussion of the various fabrics beloved of the Venetians: damasks; velvets, both cut and uncut; satin; brocade. But I found such things less fascinating than they, and curled up comfortably in a corner to wait until Rosalba was finished for the day.
When it came time to leave, we were shown to a contraption something like an old-fashioned chariot, though drawn by great fish, each almost as large as a man, and when we were settled in comfortably a command was given and the fish, their bronze sides gleaming in the dark water, drew us away at a stately pace, their tails beating rhythmically to and fro. Eventually, after a long journey, they rose up towards the light that glimmered fitfully far overhead, and our strange carriage broke the surface beside a little float tied to the ubiquitous wooden stakes. Here we disembarked and stood waiting to hail a passing gondola … and waiting … and waiting. By some mistake, we had come up a fair way from our intended destination, among the treacherous mud flats that make up the northern end of the lagoon, which even the shallow-drafted gondola avoid. As well, a clammy fog had settled over the water, shrouding us from view and deadening our voices when we tried to shout for assistance.
This northernmost part of the lagoon is known as the laguna morta, the dead lagoon, in contrast to the living lagoon to the south, flushed constantly with salt sea water and teeming with fish. This dead lagoon is a place of desolate sandbars and banks of hungry, sucking mud, into which a man would sink to his thigh, were he to trust his weight to one. The water hardly moves, the air hangs still and stagnant; perhaps, from the corner of your eye, you will catch the movement of a scuttling crab, but otherwise there is no movement, and the water and the air seem alike colourless, drab and dead, even when the thick fog lifts a little, its place taken by the ghostly sea mist that hovers above the lifeless water.
It was a thoroughly dreary wait, cold and damp and undesirable, and I was shivering with cold by the time the dark, hazy shape of a fisherman's boat became visible rowing towards us through the fog. As it approached more closely, it was obvious the oarsman was no true fisherman: his costume was simple but of too fine a material, his complexion delicate and undamaged by sun and salt air, and above all the confident grace of his posture all bespoke some noble youth masquerading for his own amusement. In all fairness, though, he had put some effort into the endeavour, for his catch lay about in the bottom of his boat, silvery scales growing slowly dull as their life ebbed into the early evening air. Pulling up at our little platform, he greeted us with a friendly cry, and I saw his face bore precisely the lineaments we had last seen on that of the Sig.na Mercurven.
Rosalba greeted him with relief, taking him to be Modeste's brother, and begged him to take us back ashore, which he agreed to do with some amusement, asking only that we should forgive him the fish, which Rosalba of course professed herself indifferent to (for myself, I recalled how long it was since I had breakfasted and felt it was a hard thing to spend so long in such proximity to an excellent meal in which I would not be invited to share); she meanwhile desired a proper introduction, which I felt was hardly necessary – of course I had been in Venice only a few days and the social niceties currently in fashion no doubt escaped me.
In any case he seated her in the prow with becoming gallantry and made her an elegant bow (showing some skill in keeping the boat in hand), introducing himself as also Modeste: 'My parents,' he explained, 'were not imaginative in the matter of names.'
Rosalba made haste to assure him it was nonetheless an excellent name of most edifying import, although I cannot say she was quite convincing; an artist determined to secure their reputation rarely prizes modesty as a virtue.
'It is kind of you to say so, although I have yet to meet a Venetian who truly believes it. But for myself I find balance and harmony the key to a contented life, and that requires quietness and restraint, for in life just as with a boat such as this too extravagant a gesture risks upset. Others may devote themselves to desire for this pleasure or that, or burn with fierce contempt for death and all earthly limitations, but I am a simple sailor at heart and believe in poise and equilibrium. But this is Venice, not Athens, and it would be poor manners to bore you with philosophy.'
'You've travelled, then, beyond Venice? To Athens and elsewhere? I both long to see the world and dread leaving so much that is familiar behind.'
'Oh yes, quite widely in my day: Cyprus and Greece and Turkey in particular, though not for some time now, and I hear they are much changed.'
'Do things change so fast, then, in other countries?'
'With dizzy speed in some respects, although whether outward appearances change inner nature is a question that tends dangerously to the philosophical. If you meant to comment on my own appearance, however, I am older than I appear. But this puts me in mind of a story which I believe you may find of value, and which with your consent we may beguile our journey.'
The lagoon had a sepulchral quietness: Modeste's voice and the water gurgling thickly around the dipping oar were loud in the silence; occasionally from far above a wheeling sea bird cried out like a lost soul, its raucous scream eerily muffled by the fog. The air itself is here notoriously bad, plagues and fevers sweeping through those who venture to fish among the dead, nor would a wise man touch the oysters that fatten themselves in the unmoving, foetid water, or dredge mussels from the all-encompassing mud.
'It happened in some far distant land,' Modeste said, and though he spoke softly, his words sounded eerie in the stillness, 'where miracles are a more commonplace occurrence than they are here, that there was a hermit of unusual piety. He was not the sort of hermit you may have heard of in church, living alone in some deserted spot, but rather of the type found far to the east, who wander from place to place, set apart from their fellows not by mere physical distance but instead by their lack of roots, free from the concerns that ensnare the worldly. Indeed, I could not tell you even if he were a Christian, or whether he had come to follow other gods – it is his holiness and miraculous powers that concern us, not details whence those powers may have been derived.
'At one point in his travels he stopped to admire a most beautiful and unusual flower – no doubt it grew on a desolate mountain peak, or some other such picturesque location, suitable for miraculous happenings. Even as he admired it, a little mouse appeared.'
– This, incidentally, I can well believe, for mice get even to the most distant places, and however far you travel, you will find nature has arrived there before you. But to continue with the tale Modeste told, navigating us skillfully between the rotting bricole that marked our way:
'The mouse proceeded to nibble on the flower, which cried out to the hermit for aid, being unable to flee: would it were a mouse, free to come and go at will, with strong little teeth of its own! And the hermit, on some whim of his own, turned his powers to granting the request, and where there had once been a flower, there now stood a rather surprised mouse.
'This mouse had no real notion where to go, or how to live life in its new form, so it kept company with the hermit, travelling with him, until one night a great owl, of the sort to be found in those parts, which are as large and powerful as eagles, swooped down from the sky, not scorning even such small and insignificant prey. The little mouse cried out to the hermit, even from the owl's talons, regretting its desire to be become a mouse: would that it had become instead an owl, with sharp talons and strong wings and no more need to tremble and hide!'
Modeste paused in here his story as steered us through a particularly shallow patch, hemmed in by banks of mud on either side. It was at this point that some great bell rang out across the marshes, its sound deadened by distance and that peculiar quality of the laguna morta that mutes all sound. Did it call the fisherman home to their warm hearths and welcoming families, or was it tolling for the dead?
'The hermit once again obliged, and by his powers freed the mouse and turned it into an owl. This owl continued as before to be the hermit's devoted companion, sharing in his wanderings, until they came to a land in which was common an unfortunate tale that the eye of an eagle owl, placed in the right hand of a sleeping woman, would enable her to foretell the future. For this reason owls were much hunted, and the hermit's owl did not long escape the general fate. Yet again it cried to the hermit, preferring the wit and skill of mankind to the life of any animal. Yet again the hermit obliged, and I should imagine the hunter was much surprised to find he had caught not an owl but a woman; nevertheless he gave her up without complaint to the hermit, whose powers he may justly have feared, and the woman like the mouse and the owl continued to travel in the hermit's company.'
By this point, we were passing the island of St Adrian, which is where the remains of dead Venetians are taken, so that the whole island is deep in bones: the ground upon which you walk is bones, the undulating hillock up which you climb is bones, the thorny bushes that impede your way grow from bones, the briars with their black fruit entwine themselves among bones. It is said, I do not know with what truth, that brave or desperate Venetians go ashore to harvest this bony crop, selling them to be used to refine the white sugar from which Venetian pastries are made. And indeed, the hard little pine nut macaroons eaten at a certain festival are sometimes known as ossi da morto, or bones of the dead.
'But,' Modeste continued, St Adrian falling away behind us, 'it is the way of mankind to think of many things, and to consider their own advantage, and the woman too began to fear the hermit's power, for surely he could turn her back into a flower or an owl at any moment, and she could hardly consider herself human when one who knew her essential nature accompanied her at all times. So the story goes that her mind turned to evil, and she tried to kill the hermit, who laughed at all her scheming and turned her back into a plant, for to him the outward forms with which he had dressed her had never for a moment concealed her true character. But I have always doubted that part, for it seems to me that if she had the ability to plan and to reason, she must have had in truth the nature and not merely the appearance of humanity, and could no longer be in essence nothing more than a plant, so as to how the story truly ended, you must find some other storyteller, better informed upon the point than I.'
While he had been speaking, we had gradually begun to near the shore of the living: here and there upon the mudflats you could see a deserted shack, blackened and split open like rotten fruit that has fallen from the tree. Occasionally, too, there were piles of rubble, or partly standing walls, the remnant of a time when this had been a living lagoon, with palaces and monasteries of its own. These remnants still sheltered some living things: the water rats, thin and starving, would peer in increasing number from every crevice to watch our passage, or dive into the water in massed crowds at our approach.
Past little islands long since drowned we went, hardly visible beneath the muddy water, and then the abandoned ruins of Torcello reared up before us, now taken over by squatters, whose washing hangs like so many winding sheets across the remnants of past glory, and then at last we left the salt marshes of the dead lagoon behind and returned to the land of the living, where Modeste assisted Rosalba out of the boat and safely to shore.
I will say of Modeste that he behaved to me also with great courtesy, and having first held out his hand to me for permission, he gently ruffled and smoothed out again the feathers below my ear, and stroked the soft fur on my back. And, in a display of more practical courtesy, offered me one of his fish for my lunch, which quite won over my opinion of him: I am aware there are few griffins to be found in Venice, such that the correct way to behave towards us is little understood, but I was growing quite tired of the belief I should have to catch all my own meals.
Perhaps Modeste's tale had stirred her curiosity further, or perhaps she had seen enough herself to wonder, for when we returned Rosalba tried repeatedly to turn the conversation to Nergüi's plant, which in all fairness is a remarkable thing, for it bears a single flower, and the petals of that flower surround an eye, which looks out with every sign of understanding and intelligence. I have seen many wonders in my time, and heard of many more, but none have been like that flower.
Night was falling and the warm glow of the many lamps flickered disconcertingly in Nergüi's dark eyes, for all she sat as far from the light as possible; the flower, meanwhile, turned always towards the brightest flame and gazed on it with all the adoration the sunflower bears for the sun. A stillness had fallen over the room, and although the streets and canals outside were still thronged and noisy the sound came as though from a great distance, as though the darkness beyond the edges of the lamplight was thick enough to muffle it, and we sat cozily in our own little world of light and warmth, cut off alike from the bustle and the chilling sea fog.
Nergüi spoke softly, as softly as the leaves stirring gently in spring, or the sound of wings in the far distance on a winter night, but we listened entranced as she told one story after another, each one skillfully leading the subject away from her flower, about which she would say nothing. I cannot remember now all the stories she told that evening, but one stays in my mind, about a hermit she had once known and a little mouse.
'I knew a man,' she said, in her strange, quiet voice, 'who had travelled a very long way from his home. He had become tired of his life, and cynical about his fellow men, whom he had come to see with too clear an eye. So he withdrew into the wilderness and lived a solitary life, eating only on that food he could gather for himself. He had with him a little mouse, who was his only companion, and who was very happy with their way of life, for mice are not adventurous by nature and prefer to stay in one place, following the same routine their entire lives.
'But winter came, and with it a harsh wind that blew down from the mountains, so cold it seemed to cut right through you, and everywhere the water began to freeze over, first a thin film, then thicker by degrees, until only the fastest running water was still clear of it. The trees were stark and bare, the earth frozen hard and cold; at night the air hurt to breathe. Gradually the hermit's supply of food dwindled away, and no more could be found anywhere, so at last he resolved to go back among people and ask for their charity. The little mouse didn't want him to leave, for although sharp hunger bit at her also, she was afraid alike to leave the valley she knew, and to be left behind alone; often and often she pleaded with him to stay, but as the winter days grew ever shorter and more bleak, he longed increasingly to leave. At last he made ready to go, packing up his meager possessions: the mouse begged him to stay but one day more.
'The man was reluctant, for there was no food left to eat, although there was still plenty of wood to burn, and he did not know how long he might need to travel, or by how hard a road, before he found help, so that he feared delaying until he was already weak with lack of food; he thought, however, that the mouse might have some hidden store of nuts and grain she planned to share, and so he waited another day, chewing on twigs to assuage his hunger.
'The day passed, however, and the next dawned without any hint of food, and again he made ready to leave the valley. Soon everything was packed up and the last thing left to do was put out the fire. Just then, the little mouse rushed up and threw herself upon it! Quickly the man muffled the flames with he cloak, although the mouse was already badly burnt. By his arts (for the hermit had many strange skills he had learnt during his travels), he breathed life back into the little form and brought her back to health.
'Why ever did you do such a thing?' he asked her in amazement, appalled that she should have tried to kill herself. But the mouse saw nothing strange about her behaviour: although the hermit had endowed her with the gift of speech, so that she could be a companion for him, she was still an animal, governed by instinct and not reason. She did not look ahead to their inevitable starvation, to weigh it against the unknown world beyond the valley, but rather listened to her fear. The foreign world of cities and men frightened her, so she would not go; she could not bear to be alone, so she would not stay. By dying she escaped from both fates, and also fed her friend, for whom she felt a deep affection, and whose well-being she desired, for all that her constant pleas to stay had put him at great risk of starvation.'
'And did he survive?' Rosalba asked, much distressed, for she is very soft-hearted.
'Oh yes, and the mouse too, for he ignored her protests and took her with him. He continued to wander for many years: I remember years later we spent another such winter far to the north, where it was even colder, though less deserted for we travelled with a group of hunters. They were an interesting people: each one carried a pair of owl claws, for they believed that only owls could reach heaven, and without the requisite claws their souls would be unable to climb the frozen winds to their paradise among the stars. The held my friend in great respect because he had won the friendship and aid of a living owl.
'We journeyed to the south, too, to the Island of Gold and to the kingdom of the Pandyans, crossing many treacherous seas, and when we parted I believe he intended to make for Venice, for your city was the city of his birth; indeed, he told me once that he was named for your saint.'
'Did you come then to find him again? For I have heard of no such Venetian wonder worker returning.'
'If I wish to meet him again I am too late, or perhaps too early, if it is true I may climb my way to heaven, for he has been dead now for many years, and was much before your time. But I believe he did return here, to die where he was born, and it is because of his love for your city that I wished to come here and see it for myself.
The following morning I was lying comfortably in the sunlight by one of the large windows, the warm light an almost palpable caress and the laughter of local children drifting up from the courtyard. Nergüi had set her strange plant by the window also, hoping to calm it, for it seemed in a fractious and unsettled mood (if indeed plants may have moods), swaying this way and that and twisting its stem most disconcertingly: I made sure to lie a prudent distance away, for I have no faith in the uncanny thing. Flowers may be considered harmless, decorative things, the fragile victims of the natural world, born it is said but to bloom and drop, helpless to defend themselves against even the most timid and fearful beast that essays to consume them, or trample them unobserved beneath its hooves – so they are considered. But all living things come to death in the end, and rot into the soil to feed those very flowers – if a plant should be endowed with thought and freedom of action, how harmless then? How helpless and innocent this beauty that blossoms from the earth, feeding on death?
Nergüi herself had retired back to some shadowed corner, disliking as she does the bright sun, her large, strigine eyes closed. Across the room, Modeste stood patiently, posed as though caught mid-step, half draped with gauzy cloth, the glancing light turning the soft curves of her white flesh to marble, as though she were no more than the statue of an ancient god. In this still room of foreign gods and strange creatures, it was Rosalba who seemed the anomaly, her pink and white prettiness entirely human, and her bustling activity as she mixed and corrected paints, tried new angles, stepped back from her easel to survey her work and then at once back in again to make some minor correction, informed by an equally human uncertainty she could not quite hide. I thought, at first, that it was Modeste's near nakedness that disturbed her, and indeed the faint, pretty blush that had touched her cheeks as Modeste began to disrobe had deepened significantly as the conventional clothes of a Venetian lady fell away to reveal a body both male and female.
In fact at that point she had dropped her palette with a loud clatter, and then launched on a confused apology (for what I am not sure), in which curiosity warred with politeness, and a desire to seem worldly and unsurprised with the frank admittance she had failed to recognize Modeste the previous afternoon. It was only after some time that she recovered herself sufficiently to begin her work, and she still seemed ill at ease. Considering her, however, it gradually came to me that the uneasiness was not solely – and perhaps hardly at all – related to Modeste. It seemed to me also that she avoided so much as glancing towards the window.
The sun grew steadily stronger and I was drowsy with warmth when Sebastian was announced. Nergüi stirred in her corner and Modeste unhurriedly redressed. Rosalba made as though to cover the revealing picture she was creating, before it occurred to her that surely Sebastian must already know.
Entering, he greeted us each in turn, with his normal grave charm; even as he turned away from Rosalba something caught his eye. 'I trust you haven't injured your hand badly? Such an injury must be distressing to a painter.'
Rosalba, startled, looked down at her hand then glanced almost fearfully at Nergüi, who was watching her impassively. I thought for a moment Rosalba meant to say nothing and brush the matter off, but she gathered her courage and addressed herself to Nergüi with barely a tremor in her voice.
'I'm sorry. I tried to look more closely at your flower, but when I picked it up, its roots curled around my hand and it seemed as though they were sucking the life from it.' A slightly accusatory note entered her voice. 'It's still numb in places.'
And I can only say she was lucky not to come out of it worse: I have seen how withered and thin Nergüi's hand is, where she feeds the flower at night, and she and it are in a manner of speaking one creature. What it might do if it caught someone else in its grasping roots I do not like to think.
Meanwhile Nergüi was explaining the nature of the flower to Rosalba and Sebastian. 'I see things always precisely as they are, but my third eye sees them as they will be, and as it draws sustenance from me at night, I too see the things it sees. It is very much as the Algerian's believe: the eye of an owl in the right hand of woman does permit her to tell the future; they are mistaken only in the process, which is more complicated than they believe. Merely taken the eye of some random owl, and placing it in the hand of an unrelated woman is not enough.'
Sebastian looked with interest between the flower and her hand. 'You feel, then, it is not too high a price for foresight?'
'I would not call it a price: I am both this woman and that flower, and we were once one body. Naturally it takes its life from me; how could I begrudge my own self?'
Rosalba, meanwhile, had turned to Modeste in sudden surmise, and now addressed herself again to Nergüi, genuinely apologetic. 'I truly am sorry: I thought it a valuable curiosity, no more. Yesterday my thoughts were all on Jadranka and my painting of her; had I listened to Modeste when he told me your story I would not have done it - I see now it was no better than an attack upon your own person. But I was so sure there was some great virtue in it, and that surely that perfect eye could somehow, were it in my possession, substitute for my own eyes.' Here her confidence began to fail her, and her voice faltered. 'I am going blind, you see. Gradually, but oh! not gradually enough, the world's colours are dimming round me and the outlines blurring; it is as though my sight is filled with darkness and all the gay beauties of my city are slowly lost to me. What use is my life to me if I cannot paint?'
It would have taken a heart of stone to be unmoved by the despair in her voice, but then, I have never been entirely sure Nergüi has a heart in any normal sense of the word. Still, I believe her voice softened somewhat as she replied. 'I cannot say; what use your life is to you is no business of mine. But I promised you payment for these rooms, and payment you shall have. You have already told Jadranka at length of your love of Venice, and the riches it contains, and since she is now to devote herself to the Venetian cause, she will pay you for your portrait, if you so wish, with pearls to replace your failing eyes, and those will let your see, after a fashion.'
The eagerness on Rosalba's face was painful to see. 'A fashion which will let me paint?'
'No, for once she has her portrait, she will have no further use for your painting, but you can be of use to her in other ways. She will wish to adorn her new city as she has her ocean palace, with curiosities and treasures from across the world, and if you will be her agent in this, there will be no difficulty in persuading her to grant you vision in so far as you use it to recognize the highest craftsmanship and the most arcane skills when they are before you: if you will abandon your city, devoting your life to travel, you will have from her the unerring gift to discern the choicest art that can be found for the beautification of the city you yourself have left. No one I know of will offer you more: you must lose Venice, and lose all but the haziest vision of the world at large, seeing everything through a milky cloud, but the things you find that are fit to send back to Jadranka and to Venice, those things, and those alone, you will see clearly and in their true light.'
Rosalba sat down - perhaps I should say collapsed - beside her easel, like a marionette whose strings have been cut. Hope and resignation warred in her eyes and she rang her hands. Sebastian, meanwhile, had turned his mind back to his own question.
'Am I to understand, then, that the wiser advice of morning is that I should indeed marry Jadranka, and entrust Venice's future to a maritime empire?'
'For your personal happiness? Or for the sake of your city?' Nergüi asked. 'Whichever way you choose, the city will come in time to the same thing, for in the end Venice will require control of the land as well as the sea, to secure her crops and food. And once she is committed to the land, her borders no longer sea and swamp but abutting those of her enemies, she will have abandoned all her ancient security and guarantee of safety. All you may do is put off the day.'
Sebastian shrugged lightly. 'No man can do more.' And then to Modeste, with a wry smile, 'I am sadly inconsistent. Worried that a Nereid is beyond my desserts, I set my sights far higher. But truly, I wish things might have been otherwise, although my duty is plain. I hope at least that we will still go rowing together one day, you and I, out across the northern marshes.'
The Venetians are a strange people, and their nobility has perfected the art of a decadence so austere as to verge upon asceticism. To see in Modeste the inheritance of Aphrodite, and desire to satisfy the lust of the flesh would be readily comprehensible (although it is given to few to find an ancient deity with whom to practice those lusts), but to see equally the inheritance of Hermes, and to be as ready to make an assignation on the shores of death as on some comfortable couch: is that the perverse end of debauchery, or the most restrained self-denial?