"What did you call me?"
With great difficulty, the watchman sat up in his chair and rubbed his eyes. He looked at his own hand, measuring the progress of time against the vision before him.
"Did you call me Esme?" she asked again.
"A ghost!" he gasped.
"No. I am Tabitha. Tabitha de Bourneville. Esme Bourneville was my mother"
"Ah!" He got up. A stick resting beside the chair braced one of his legs. His open palm slid heavily over the knob. He stumped up to her and stuck his own face close, examining her as one would a statue in a museum. She suffered this. It seemed to be her only mode of existence now, to suffer things, unflinchingly. His yellow eyes, his carbuncular nose, his hoarse, stinking breath hot on her cheek.
"My mother came to this place for her honeymoon. Did you know her?"
"Know her? I was clerk at the Grand Hotel that night. The night it happened."
He shook his head.
"Gave me money, the English sir who was with her. He gave me money not to tell."
"My father gave you money? For you not to tell what? You can tell me now. I am their daughter."
"I will tell you. For a kiss," he leered, baring his toothless gums.
"Yes," she said slowly, turning to face him. "I will kiss you."
The grotesque smile died on the watchman's lips.
"You are a ghost," he said, backing away. "Damned to return here and repeat your sin."
"Sin? What sin? Tell me."
In his haste to flee, he dropped his stick. It fell to the floor and rolled. He kept staggering back, grasping the edges of tables.
"No!" he cried. "Stay away!"
"Tell me what she did. My mother. What so offended you?"
"You are the fruit of evil!" he called, found a door, and disappeared through it.
Tabitha followed him a moment, then stopped. "Fruit of evil." What could that mean? I am going mad, she thought. She felt dizzy. She swore she could hear the hubbub, feel the warmth, see the glitter of the great chandelier suspended high above the room as the crowd gathered. Now the roulette wheel, with its irrevocable numbers, spun, kicked the ball high, and there was her mother, her very self, newly married, diamonds at her throat, ablaze, triumphant, with her tall handsome husband, his hair still curly, as fate would decree it remain forever, in the memory of those who loved him, at her side. What had happened here? What had gone so disastrously wrong? So wrong she was still paying the price? As she strained to imagine, she thought she saw another person, or just a shadowy essence in the background, providing the very darkness against which her parents, young and beautiful, shone so brilliantly, so desperately. "...a ghost, damned to return and repeat your sin." The watchman's words loosened the very moorings of her sensibility. Who am I? she wondered. Am I myself, or am I her? Is it now, or is it then? Her hat was twisted between her two hands. She plunged her face into the soft fur and wept.
Ah, Venice, the sparkling city, miraculously afloat, a globe of glass through which all colors glitter while remaining itself curiously clear, frozen in the thick medium of molten light. At dawn, rainbows vibrate excitedly on the surface of the canals, aquarelles eager to be loaded onto the sun's sensually sleek brush, moisten its tapering tip, and rise painstakingly to the sky, where they explode in unimaginable hues. The silence too is that of a world enclosed. There are no hoofbeats or horns. Cries die on the lips. Footfalls are muffled. Music, even, seems strangely beside the point, as if existing only to define the edges of a deep and central quiet. The plunk of the gondoliero's pole, steadily sounding the waterway's depth, gives rhythm to the scene. He turns off the Grand Canal, onto a lesser waterway, then turns again, entering a barely noticeable channel, not kept up by the city authority but private, choked with the moss of neglect. Rusting iron rings line the increasingly claustrophobic tributary, so narrow a boy would be tempted to leap across. Here, as evidenced by the many moorings, giant parties used to assemble. You can see where torches were set at angles in the sides of neighboring walls. And now the gate itself, so reclaimed by mollusks and sea vegetables it looks like the entrance to Neptune's kingdom, rising out of black, centuries old, stinking water, a huge wrought-iron monster which, if one squints, will yield the intertwined letters P and V. The Palazzo Vecchio, at one time true residence of the Doge (whose more famous "palace" was reserved for administrative and ceremonial use.) Designed by Brunelleschi, decorated by Titian, at one point boasting a gem-encrusted pepper mill cast by Cellini, there is even legend of a missing fresco, one executed by Leonardo himself after the fiasco of The Last Supper, where, the technical problems that had ruined his previous attempt at last solved, the grumbling master of the cinquecento had, in effect, created "a new world out of an old wall...something strangely existing between the shallow pranks of Uccello and the innate grasp of a man's soul exhibited by Michelangelo." --Vasari. "For this, the conquering of space, the aping of God's prerogative in creating a human form that, people swore, breathed, Leonardo was rewarded with charges of sacrilege and necromancy. He was chased from the enchanted city, never to return, his masterpiece taken down brick by brick, rowed far out into the Adriatic, and tossed overboard so that it might never be retrieved. (Though some say the Doge, a great lover of art, but needing to placate the church party, merely had the work covered up, where it remains hidden to this day.)" The great residence, plundered first by the Turks (1479), then by the Borgias (1503), has long since fallen into desuetude. Visitors are encouraged instead to examine a model of it on display in the library of San Marco. Nowadays, what is left of the building is in private hands, and known by the local people simply as "the old palace", with none of its former grand associations. Hemmed in by taller neighbors, its windows, formerly ablaze with "a curious blue found nowhere else," bricked up, even the famous spiral chimneys--this, the final ignominy--carted off by a German prince and currently on display at the Kunstgewerbemuseum, no more than two or three scholarly requests per year wishing to visit the remaining shell reach the agent responsible for its upkeep. These are always refused. The gondoliero does not attempt to enter the ancient palace itself. Rather, he takes a packet from his waterproof bag and throws it high over the gate, where it bounces on the yellowed marble steps of the landing. A servant in fabulous livery picks up the newly delivered intelligence, places it on a silver tray, and hurries to the receiving hall, where it is laid on a table at the head of which sits the palazzo's current owner.
"Folkstone," Inspector Jenkins reported, rifling through the reports. "They took the last ferry before we instituted the lookout. Had a rough crossing, if that is any consolation."
"And after?" the voice asked.
"After, we do not quite know." Inspector Jenkins kept his eyes averted, as if there were more written on the dispatch he held before him. "Indeed, your Highness, the Continent is not my province, so to speak. I feel like a fish out of water here. Despite all the...water," he ended lamely. "I have never been abroad before. No doubt the Foreign Office has operatives who--"
"You are the only person I see," the voice replied. "That way, if the need arises to snip the thread connecting myself to this affair, it can be easily done."
"Naturally, your Highness. I understand."
Of course Inspector Jenkins could have looked up. It is not as if he would have had his head chopped off. Not right away, at least. But what would he have seen? He had glimpsed the cold, barren hall upon entering. A coffin, he would describe it, all done up in marble, the floor, the walls, the ceiling. The only light came from great smoking brands fixed in blackened sconces and a candelabra that looked like some religious ornament, it was so intricate and big, set square in the middle of the long skinny table. He sat at the foot, the Prince at the head. And in the light there was, what did his interlocutor look like? Inspector Jenkins could not have told you that even if he had gone right up to the man in question. His Highness' face, as always, was covered by a quilted mask of black moiré silk, the pattern of the material giving a strange, tear-streaked look to the featureless visage. There were holes for the mouth and eye. None for the nose. Above it, a bald head showed unsettlingly white.
"And the Baron?" the low, mournful voice went on. "Any progress on that front?"
"None whatsoever," Inspector Jenkins said more confidently. He enjoyed reporting the failure of others. It could only raise him in his Highness' estimation, which was quite necessary after his relative failure in the Ghoulrich matter. "The disease is spread by...intimacy. He has confirmed that, and moved on to study its progress in the larger mammals. But its course, once it has entered the body, is still unaffected by any known treatment."
"Death is inevitable," the monarch-to-be translated.
"May I say, sir, it shows the true broadmindedness of a leader, your taking a personal interest in such a sordid matter as this."
"Just find the boy."
"To be frank, your Highness," Inspector Jenkins risked, "we do not know for certain Mr. Ghoulrich is in Italy at all."
"Here is where he would come," the voice answered. "I know his tastes. What about the man he fled with?"
"Lutwidge Finch? No one has seen hide nor hair of him either. My men visited his manservant. He was most unforthcoming."
"Perhaps it was a mistake, devising that fiction about Bradley's death."
"It was not a fiction, it was an assumption," Inspector Jenkins said promptly. "He had, after all, been run down by your coach. I was just trying to tidy up the affair, saying his body had been burnt. It would have been, you will recall, had the authorities come across it."
"The poor boy was distraught."
"And you cannot blame me," Inspector Jenkins argued--as he would with God Himself, if he thought himself falsely accused--, "for not anticipating Mr. G's bizarre behavior afterwards."
"A blow to the head."
"Yes, well a man's a man and a woman's a woman, where I come from."
"I want him back," the voice said simply, cutting short the Inspector's peevish outburst. "Here. Unharmed. Of his own volition."
"Certainly, your Highness. And what of Mr. Finch?"
"He is of no concern to me."
"Then I should...?"
"If he is infected."
"Oh no, sir. I do not believe it is that kind of a friendship. But since you did charge me with finding out if any of Mr. Ghoulrich's associates knew of his...times with you--"
"Do as you see fit. I leave the matter in your hands entirely, Jenkins. You will reap the rewards if you succeed, and suffer the consequences should you fail."
"Very good, your Highness."
By the time Jenkins got out of his chair and bowed, the Prince had already left the room. Now he did permit himself a leisurely look around. A lion skin rug was set in a yellow snarl as it rose from the smooth, freezing floor. Like England, he thought patriotically, rising out of the sea. But that was the only touch of which he approved. Not a place a man could have fun in, he concluded, seeing how the barbaric flames almost licked their blackened reflections. A bit gothic. Certainly not how he would do things up, were he Heir Apparent.
The servant in foppish livery reappeared. Jenkins did not speak to him, for the very good reason that the man had never, in the past, responded to a single one of his salutations. He merely followed him out. It was obscene, really, how tight the equerry's trousers were. Almost as if he were hobbled. And that ostrich feather! By contrast, the fairy-tale domes and spires of the Guidecca seemed tame as they bestowed their shapes on the by-now blazing bay. Harvest time back home, the Inspector recalled nostalgically, though his youthful acquaintance with the countryside had been limited to excursions his chapel made to hear itinerant preachers exhort ladies and small, unwilling children, while all around them an air of drunkenness and sexual license prevailed. But it was the smokey autumn breeze, the tang of danger, of possible damnation, that made Fall, to young Arthur Jenkins, the most aptly-named of seasons. That whiff of hellfire made the hairs on the back of his neck prickle most agreeably. Here--he caught himself from almost pitching headfirst into a canal, he simply could not get used to these bridges with no handrails--the southern sun seemed to outshine Jesus Himself, to encourage sloth and idolatry. He would find the Prince's little plaything, of course. He had failed the first time because he had not known the subject, had not known what he was dealing with. What he was trying to do now, and instead getting further and further from his goal, was simply reach the dock where boats took you back to the mainland. He was due to meet a man there in a half hour. (No one, of course, must know that the heir to the throne was in Venice. The mask, an affectation the Prince had worn ever since attaining his majority, in this case, as in many others, served him well.)
"So much of what passes for literature these days is mere journalism," he heard.
Grateful simply for the sounds and rhythms of English, ignoring the sense, if any, the words might hold, he sought out the speaker, who was reclining in a café with bread and coffee before him, speaking to a small, dark woman who took no interest in what he said, but munched on a chocolate roll while marvelling at the view.
"One's personal experience, for example," Mister MacIntyre went on, "what makes that some literary touchstone? Does it follow that I must lead an exciting life to write an exciting book? Or, if not constitutionally suited for that, must I instead place myself in situations, like some seamy 'investigator', spy on life from a discrete distance and then, at the last moment, gloatingly run off with my ill-gotten gains--observations, scraps of dialogue, bits of local color--to shoehorn it all into some accepted literary form so people at home can thrill to it from the comfort of their own armchairs? I think not. What I dream of is a form through which I can move at ease."
"I don't understand," Doris said, as if this were a fitting response to his speech, "how they carried the stones all the way out here."
"Boats, my dear child. Barges, I imagine. It is the eighth wonder of the world, Venice. Or the ninth, perhaps," he murmured, thinking of his performance last night.
"Excuse me," Inspector Jenkins said. "Have I the honor of addressing Mr. M. MacIntyre, the novelist?"
"You have," Mister MacIntyre bowed.
Jenkins introduced himself, omitting to give his rank or, indeed, his real name, improvising instead a "Mr. Algernon," schoolmaster, tourist, and great admirer of the writer.