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An Hour in Heaven

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Venice is always a city of light. It is built of stone, heavy stone that sinks by creeping inches into the mud, but by some alchemy of architecture that stone is so perfectly proportioned, so pierced about with windows and arches, so delicately formed into balconies and curving stairs, that it seems to float, almost to rise up, and the light floods in everywhere, banishing the gloom and dank that should be inevitable in a crowded city being swallowed slowly by a swampy lagoon.

And when the sun has set, when the golden light so beloved of painters no longer pours through its narrow streets or lends its dark canals a misleading, borrowed glow, why then the Venetians light it themselves, supplying the sun’s absence with a thousand torches, with lanterns on every darkly skimming gondola, with grand chandeliers burning with a hundred thousand candles - and never more so than at carnival, when none would think of sleeping before the return of the sun.

The masked revellers pass to and fro, filling the streets and palaces alike, seeming almost like a host of spirits: one moment the light catches on brilliant jewels, on silks, on elaborate curls of golden hair; the next a shadow turns a mask into a bestial face, makes the silhouette of a dancer monstrous.

On one balcony, there is a sudden stir - a man, a visitor, who has cast aside his mask, climbs up upon the stone balustrade, makes some impassioned speech, threatens to cast himself down into the canal below, while his friends beg him to come back inside. It is only a local disturbance, however, of no more moment than some little eddy in the water below, and the mass of people continue on their way, unconcerned.

….

‘You prefer to go look at a man lose at cards when you could be looking at me?’

She managed just the right note of charming petulance, and the soldier (young, dashing, inexperienced) duly forgot about some melodramatic foreigner making a silly fuss about his losses, and went back to gazing enraptured. The girl was half sitting, half sprawling on an elegant little couch, reclining with a sort of casual ease, as though she owned it and the palazzo both. And yet, for all the stylishness of her dress, she was very young herself, and had about her still the healthy glow of one accustomed to rise rather than to sleep with the sun, which made her seem familiar and approachable, more like his sister and cousins and and childhood playmates than some grand lady.

And oh, the pretty blush upon her cheeks and her heavy lidded, seductive gaze were surely proof she was enamoured of him. He would do such deeds for her - fight great battles in her name … rescue her from ill-defined evils … shower her with wealth and fame … bring her another glass of wine. Which last was somewhat more more prosaic, but also more readily and immediately achievable since the party, whilst well supplied with many luxuries, lacked dragons and the opportunity to come upon untold riches both.

The girl herself, Giulia by name (la bella Giulietta to her newfound lovers), watched him go with little interest; she had found there to be no shortage of callow young men. She would in truth have been interested to see the Englishman jump, if he did indeed jump, and also whether it turned out he could swim, but she had already drunk enough that the painted ceiling was describing lazy arcs above her, and she was not at all confident of her ability to stand unaided: many things might be permitted in her new career, but making a fool of oneself was not among them. Better to remain where she was.

After a while someone brought her another glass of wine and sat down beside her. Not the young man, someone older, well into middle age. Well, one man was as good as another. This one called her Giulia, though, which she didn’t like. Giulia was a name fit for daughters and wives and respectable women, women worked hard all day and never went to parties: it lacked glamour. Unfortunately her pout worked less well on him, and he merely smiled indulgently at her.

‘My child, if you reach my age you will see the wisdom in calling things by their true names.’

She considered this, sipping her wine. ‘But you aren’t following your own advice. I am not a child.’

‘But to me you are. Oh, don’t take offence, I can see you are a very lovely young woman. But a child looks on the world with wonder, unjaded. Why hurry to exchange a world of pretty toys for a heavy burden of sin and guilt?’

The man settled more comfortably, stretching out his legs and surveying the crowd with an air of detached curiosity, like a spectator at the theatre. ‘Take your young cavalier. Is he not like a toy soldier? So handsome. So smartly dressed. So romantic. Would it really be better to see him as an individual man, uncertain and full of hope for the future, with parents and a sister who love him, and a future which lasts just long enough to taste disappointment, and failure, and fear, before ending in drawn out agony - not even a clean death in battle, but an infected wound which takes weeks to kill? No, you do better not to think of such things.’

Here he turned his considering gaze on her, and she found it surprisingly uncomfortable to meet his eyes. It was ridiculous, of course - he was another ageing roué, playing at cynicism as younger men played at idealism, and there was no more to fear from one than the other. Still, she would have preferred him not to be looking at her, and something about him made her aware of the comparative cheapness of her dress, the traces of her inelegant childhood accent, the number of her jewels which were really only glass or paste. And yet, it was as hard to look away as it had been meet his eyes, and for a moment she had the strangest feeling that only he and she were real, that the party going on around her had no more substance sea foam. And then, somehow, between one moment and the next, he was gone, and the world returned to normal.

Almost to normal. The wind had got up, and the windows of the palace all stood open, making the torches and candles flare and gutter, deformed shadows dancing with beams of light, so that no one looked the same from one moment to the next: one instant normal and familiar, the next twisted, or with a sickly white pallor, or cadaverous, and then again as the had been, maybe a little worse for wine, but no more than that. The room, for all its size, was too hot, the music out of tune, and quite suddenly all she wanted was to go home.

….

The next morning her head ached abominably, and she buried her head in her pillow, trying to escape the late morning sun that flooded through her window. But youth and good health are a remedy for most things, and by the time she had risen, and her servant bathed her, and she had nibbled a little breakfast, she felt quite well again, and her memories of the previous night lost their monstrous tone and became more realistic. She had been drunk. The man had upset her by talking about illness and death, with which she had quite enough experience already - there was no more to it than that. And it was natural that, being reminded of her parents, she had also been reminded of the little room they’d shared and wished to return to it. It was a momentary lapse, and such lapses would come more rarely. Really, this life was much better. She had a soft pillow on her bed, and a servant, and nice clothes to wear, and should she herself one day fall ill, money for a doctor. There was no point in thinking about the past. Still, as she finished her toilette, and without admitting to herself what she was doing, she slipped onto her finger the only thing she had that pre-dated her current life, the ring her mother had always worn.

It was pleasant to stroll through the streets of Venice, pausing on bridges to watch the passing gondolas, stopping in a little square to sit for a while under a tree, watching other young women, women who did not have servants of their own, come to get water from the well. (Her own servant accompanied her like a shadow, watching over her.) The sun was warm, the stone seat cool, the sky above her blue, and she had nothing to do until the evening. What more could she want?

That evening there was a Faro party, and she watched the dealer’s hands with fascination. She knew he was cheating - that was, after all, the point of being the dealer - but no matter how closely she watched, she could never see the trick of it. The men who were there to gamble must surely have known he was cheating too - they could not possibly all be so naive as to think otherwise - but they didn’t seem to care, throwing themselves into the game, as though it were only chance that snatched the victory from them again and again. Well, the dealer knew what he was doing, and let one or another of them win sometimes, just often enough to keep them playing, sure that they would be the one to cheat fortune, that they were not throwing themselves eagerly at their own destruction.

It felt somehow inevitable that he should be there again, the disconcerting man from the previous evening, soberly dressed in black. She would have expected him not to play, although she hardly knew why - a man who turned up at these sort of parties was almost guaranteed to be a confirmed gambler - and in fact he took his place at the table with the others. As the cards fell out, he won, and won again. Perhaps he was in league with the dealer? That was a common ploy, giving the impression of a fair game a player could hope to win.

He paid no attention to her at first, and she could almost believe he hadn’t noticed her, although his sharp, dispassionate gaze fell on everything else in the room - the furniture (was he noticing it was a little worn, a little out of fashion, the days when Venice was the power and wonder of the world already long past?), the dealer (he would have no difficulty catching the sleight of hand), the other players (was he seeing them as they were then, or as they would be in the future, when the last of their luck had deserted them?). She was uneasily aware of the current of fear in her fascination with him, as a mouse might be fascinated by a cat, or a fish by a fisherman’s lure. But at least he seemed real to her, and individual, not like the ever mounting parade of lovers and would-be lovers, none better or more memorable than the one before.

As his winnings increased, he piled the coins up on the table in a careful order, one exactly on top of the another, each stack the same height. After a while he seemed satisfied with the display and, sitting back, turned directly to her, casually indicating his winnings. It was not so unusual an offer - plenty of men were prepared to convert their winnings, or the remaining sum they hadn’t lost, into a night with one of the women who clustered round the table - but she found herself hesitating all the same.

Then she berated herself for a fool. There were courtesans in Venice who could capriciously reject a promising patron, who were indeed more apt to reject than accept: the very difficulty of winning, and having won, of keeping them drove up their price. But those were the grandest and most acclaimed; she herself was very far from being among their number.

As she reached for the money, he caught sight of her ring. Why was she still wearing it? It hardly went with her new finery. But, even so, what right had he to raise his eyebrow and look critical? It might be thin and worn, but it was genuine gold. Head held high (and giving in fact a fine impersonation of one of those grand ladies who could afford to say yea or nay as they pleased), she took the money and seated herself beside him.

….

It was already late afternoon, and the winter sun was sinking rapidly, it’s low, slanting light setting the buildings aglow and glinting on metal tips of the gondolas. It was a lovely sight, and Giulietta would have admired it, had she happened to look from the window. But that was hardly likely, for she was choosing her dress for the evening. She had a fine selection now, just as she had a new and larger apartment, with more servants, and a life with gayer and more hectic pleasures than watching a sunset. Security too, in her ever growing collection of jewels: even should her looks fade, her lovers desert her, she would be able to live in comfort. It was increasingly hard, though, to imagine that future, to imagine anything beyond the endless whirl of parties and assignations. Could you go back to drinking water when you were accustomed to breakfast on champagne?

One of her new servants, ugly but charming, held out her jewel box to her, real stones now, precious and beautiful; the paste, the trumpery glass, the cheap, poor quality pieces gradually weeded out to make room for the genuine. Only one cheap piece left, in fact, too old and scratched and plain to be worth keeping. On an impulse, she took it out of the box and held it up to the last of the light. Pitichinaccio really was a good servant (Dapertutto’s choices were always good), and he was both loyal and amusing, which was surely worth something, especially the last, for she found herself laughing less these days than she had once - he deserved the occasional tip. She tossed the ring to him, saying lightly ‘Take this, I shan’t be needing it again,’ and turned back to her elegant dresses.