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    Two Old Houses and Three Young Women

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    Chapter 4
    Previous Chapter
    There are times and places that come back yet again, but that,
    when the brooding tourist puts out his hand to them, meet it a
    little slowly, or even seem to recede a step, as if in slight
    fear of some liberty he may take. Surely they should know by this
    time that he is capable of taking none. He has his own way--he
    makes it all right. It now becomes just a part of the charming
    solicitation that it presents precisely a problem--that of giving
    the particular thing as much as possible without at the same time
    giving it, as we say, away. There are considerations,
    proprieties, a necessary indirectness--he must use, in short, a
    little art. No necessity, however, more than this, makes him warm
    to his work, and thus it is that, after all, he hangs his three
    pictures.

    I

    The evening that was to give me the first of them was by no means
    the first occasion of my asking myself if that inveterate "style"
    of which we talk so much be absolutely conditioned--in dear old
    Venice and elsewhere--on decrepitude. Is it the style that has
    brought about the decrepitude, or the decrepitude that has, as it
    were, intensified and consecrated the style? There is an
    ambiguity about it all that constantly haunts and beguiles. Dear
    old Venice has lost her complexion, her figure, her reputation,
    her self-respect; and yet, with it all, has so puzzlingly not
    lost a shred of her distinction. Perhaps indeed the case is
    simpler than it seems, for the poetry of misfortune is familiar
    to us all, whereas, in spite of a stroke here and there of some
    happy justice that charms, we scarce find ourselves anywhere
    arrested by the poetry of a run of luck. The misfortune of Venice
    being, accordingly, at every point, what we most touch, feel and
    see, we end by assuming it to be of the essence of her dignity; a
    consequence, we become aware, by the way, sufficiently
    discouraging to the general application or pretension of style,
    and all the more that, to make the final felicity deep, the
    original greatness must have been something tremendous. If it be
    the ruins that are noble we have known plenty that were not, and
    moreover there are degrees and varieties: certain monuments,
    solid survivals, hold up their heads and decline to ask for a
    grain of your pity. Well, one knows of course when to keep one's
    pity to oneself; yet one clings, even in the face of the colder
    stare, to one's prized Venetian privilege of making the sense of
    doom and decay a part of every impression. Cheerful work, it may
    be said of course; and it is doubtless only in Venice that you
    gain more by such a trick than you lose. What was most beautiful
    is gone; what was next most beautiful is, thank goodness, going--
    that, I think, is the monstrous description of the better part of
    your thought. Is it really your fault if the place makes you want
    so desperately to read history into everything?

    You do that wherever you turn and wherever you look, and you do
    it, I should say, most of all at night. It comes to you there
    with longer knowledge, and with all deference to what flushes and
    shimmers, that the night is the real time. It perhaps even
    wouldn't take much to make you award the palm to the nights of
    winter. This is certainly true for the form of progression that
    is most characteristic, for every question of departure and
    arrival by gondola. The little closed cabin of this perfect
    vehicle, the movement, the darkness and the plash, the
    indistinguishable swerves and twists, all the things you don't
    see and all the things you do feel--each dim recognition and
    obscure arrest is a possible throb of your sense of being floated
    to your doom, even when the truth is simply and sociably that you
    are going out to tea. Nowhere else is anything as innocent so
    mysterious, nor anything as mysterious so pleasantly deterrent to
    protest. These are the moments when you are most daringly
    Venetian, most content to leave cheap trippers and other aliens
    the high light of the mid-lagoon and the pursuit of pink and
    gold. The splendid day is good enough for them; what is
    best for you is to stop at last, as you are now stopping, among
    clustered pali and softly-shifting poops and prows, at a
    great flight of water-steps that play their admirable part in the
    general effect of a great entrance. The high doors stand open
    from them to the paved chamber of a basement tremendously tall
    and not vulgarly lighted, from which, in turn, mounts the slow
    stone staircase that draws you further on. The great point is,
    that if you are worthy of this impression at all, there isn't a
    single item of it of which the association isn't noble. Hold to
    it fast that there is no other such dignity of arrival as arrival
    by water. Hold to it that to float and slacken and gently bump,
    to creep out of the low, dark felze and make the few
    guided movements and find the strong crooked and offered arm, and
    then, beneath lighted palace-windows, pass up the few damp steps
    on the precautionary carpet--hold to it that these things
    constitute a preparation of which the only defect is that it may
    sometimes perhaps really prepare too much. It's so stately that
    what can come after?--it's so good in itself that what, upstairs,
    as we comparative vulgarians say, can be better? Hold to it, at
    any rate, that if a lady, in especial, scrambles out of a
    carriage, tumbles out of a cab, flops out of a tram-car, and
    hurtles, projectile-like, out of a "lightning-elevator," she
    alights from the Venetian conveyance as Cleopatra may have
    stepped from her barge. Upstairs--whatever may be yet in store
    for her--her entrance shall still advantageously enjoy the
    support most opposed to the "momentum" acquired. The beauty of
    the matter has been in the absence of all momentum--elsewhere so
    scientifically applied to us, from behind, by the terrible life
    of our day--and in the fact that, as the elements of slowness,
    the felicities of deliberation, doubtless thus all hang together,
    the last of calculable dangers is to enter a great Venetian room
    with a rush.

    Not the least happy note, therefore, of the picture I am trying
    to frame is that there was absolutely no rushing; not only in the
    sense of a scramble over marble floors, but, by reason of
    something dissuasive and distributive in the very air of the
    place, a suggestion, under the fine old ceilings and among types
    of face and figure abounding in the unexpected, that here were
    many things to consider. Perhaps the simplest rendering of a
    scene into the depths of which there are good grounds of
    discretion for not sinking would be just this emphasis on the
    value of the unexpected for such occasions--with due
    qualification, naturally, of its degree. Unexpectedness pure and
    simple, it is needless to say, may easily endanger any social
    gathering, and I hasten to add moreover that the figures and
    faces I speak of were probably not in the least unexpected to
    each other. The stage they occupied was a stage of variety--
    Venice has ever been a garden of strange social flowers. It is
    only as reflected in the consciousness of the visitor from afar--
    brooding tourist even call him, or sharp-eyed bird on the branch-
    -that I attempt to give you the little drama; beginning with the
    felicity that most appealed to him, the visible, unmistakable
    fact that he was the only representative of his class. The whole
    of the rest of the business was but what he saw and felt and
    fancied--what he was to remember and what he was to forget.
    Through it all, I may say distinctly, he clung to his great
    Venetian clue--the explanation of everything by the historic
    idea. It was a high historic house, with such a quantity of
    recorded past twinkling in the multitudinous candles that one
    grasped at the idea of something waning and displaced, and might
    even fondly and secretly nurse the conceit that what one was
    having was just the very last. Wasn't it certainly, for instance,
    no mere illusion that there is no appreciable future left for
    such manners--an urbanity so comprehensive, a form so
    transmitted, as those of such a hostess and such a host? The
    future is for a different conception of the graceful altogether--
    so far as it's for a conception of the graceful at all. Into that
    computation I shall not attempt to enter; but these
    representative products of an antique culture, at least, and one
    of which the secret seems more likely than not to be lost, were
    not common, nor indeed was any one else--in the circle to which
    the picture most insisted on restricting itself.

    Neither, on the other hand, was anyone either very beautiful or
    very fresh: which was again, exactly, a precious "value" on an
    occasion that was to shine most, to the imagination, by the
    complexity of its references. Such old, old women with such old,
    old jewels; such ugly, ugly ones with such handsome, becoming
    names; such battered, fatigued gentlemen with such inscrutable
    decorations; such an absence of youth, for the most part, in
    either sex--of the pink and white, the "bud" of new worlds; such
    a general personal air, in fine, of being the worse for a good
    deal of wear in various old ones. It was not a society--that was
    clear--in which little girls and boys set the tune; and there was
    that about it all that might well have cast a shadow on the path
    of even the most successful little girl. Yet also--let me not be
    rudely inexact--it was in honour of youth and freshness that we
    had all been convened. The fiançailles of the last--unless
    it were the last but one--unmarried daughter of the house had
    just been brought to a proper climax; the contract had been
    signed, the betrothal rounded off--I'm not sure that the civil
    marriage hadn't, that day, taken place. The occasion then had in
    fact the most charming of heroines and the most ingenuous of
    heroes, a young man, the latter, all happily suffused with a fair
    Austrian blush. The young lady had had, besides other more or
    less shining recent ancestors, a very famous paternal
    grandmother, who had played a great part in the political history
    of her time and whose portrait, in the taste and dress of 1830,
    was conspicuous in one of the rooms. The grand-daughter of this
    celebrity, of royal race, was strikingly like her and, by a
    fortunate stroke, had been habited, combed, curled in a manner
    exactly to reproduce the portrait. These things were charming and
    amusing, as indeed were several other things besides. The great
    Venetian beauty of our period was there, and nature had equipped
    the great Venetian beauty for her part with the properest sense
    of the suitable, or in any case with a splendid generosity--
    since on the ideally suitable character of so brave a
    human symbol who shall have the last word? This responsible agent
    was at all events the beauty in the world about whom probably,
    most, the absence of question (an absence never wholly
    propitious) would a little smugly and monotonously flourish: the
    one thing wanting to the interest she inspired was thus the
    possibility of ever discussing it. There were plenty of
    suggestive subjects round about, on the other hand, as to which
    the exchange of ideas would by no means necessarily have dropped.
    You profit to the full at such times by all the old voices,
    echoes, images--by that element of the history of Venice which
    represents all Europe as having at one time and another revelled
    or rested, asked for pleasure or for patience there; which gives
    you the place supremely as the refuge of endless strange secrets,
    broken fortunes and wounded hearts.

    II

    There had been, on lines of further or different speculation, a
    young Englishman to luncheon, and the young Englishman had proved
    "sympathetic"; so that when it was a question afterwards of some
    of the more hidden treasures, the browner depths of the old
    churches, the case became one for mutual guidance and gratitude--
    for a small afternoon tour and the wait of a pair of friends in
    the warm little campi, at locked doors for which the
    nearest urchin had scurried off to fetch the keeper of the key.
    There are few brown depths to-day into which the light of the
    hotels doesn't shine, and few hidden treasures about which pages
    enough, doubtless, haven't already been printed: my business,
    accordingly, let me hasten to say, is not now with the fond
    renewal of any discovery--at least in the order of impressions
    most usual. Your discovery may be, for that matter, renewed every
    week; the only essential is the good luck--which a fair amount of
    practice has taught you to count upon-of not finding, for the
    particular occasion, other discoverers in the field. Then, in the
    quiet corner, with the closed door--then in the presence of the
    picture and of your companion's sensible emotion--not only the
    original happy moment, but everything else, is renewed. Yet once
    again it can all come back. The old custode, shuffling about in
    the dimness, jerks away, to make sure of his tip, the old curtain
    that isn't much more modern than the wonderful work itself. He
    does his best to create light where light can never be; but you
    have your practised groping gaze, and in guiding the young eyes
    of your less confident associate, moreover, you feel you possess
    the treasure. These are the refined pleasures that Venice has
    still to give, these odd happy passages of communication and
    response.

    But the point of my reminiscence is that there were other
    communications that day, as there were certainly other responses.
    I have forgotten exactly what it was we were looking for--without
    much success--when we met the three Sisters. Nothing requires
    more care, as a long knowledge of Venice works in, than not to
    lose the useful faculty of getting lost. I had so successfully
    done my best to preserve it that I could at that moment
    conscientiously profess an absence of any suspicion of where we
    might be. It proved enough that, wherever we were, we were where
    the three sisters found us. This was on a little bridge near a
    big campo, and a part of the charm of the matter was the theory
    that it was very much out of the way. They took us promptly in
    hand--they were only walking over to San Marco to match some
    coloured wool for the manufacture of such belated cushions as
    still bloom with purple and green in the long leisures of old
    palaces; and that mild errand could easily open a parenthesis.
    The obscure church we had feebly imagined we were looking for
    proved, if I am not mistaken, that of the sisters' parish; as to
    which I have but a confused recollection of a large grey void and
    of admiring for the first time a fine work of art of which I have
    now quite lost the identity. This was the effect of the charming
    beneficence of the three sisters, who presently were to give our
    adventure a turn in the emotion of which everything that had
    preceded seemed as nothing. It actually strikes me even as a
    little dim to have been told by them, as we all fared together,
    that a certain low, wide house, in a small square as to which I
    found myself without particular association, had been in the far-
    off time the residence of George Sand. And yet this was a fact
    that, though I could then only feel it must be for another day,
    would in a different connection have set me richly
    reconstructing.

    Madame Sand's famous Venetian year has been of late immensely in
    the air--a tub of soiled linen which the muse of history, rolling
    her sleeves well up, has not even yet quite ceased energetically
    and publicly to wash. The house in question must have been the
    house to which the wonderful lady betook herself when, in 1834,
    after the dramatic exit of Alfred de Musset, she enjoyed that
    remarkable period of rest and refreshment with the so long
    silent, the but recently rediscovered, reported, extinguished,
    Doctor Pagello. As an old Sandist--not exactly indeed of the
    première heure, but of the fine high noon and golden
    afternoon of the great career--I had been, though I confess too
    inactively, curious as to a few points in the topography of the
    eminent adventure to which I here allude; but had never got
    beyond the little public fact, in itself always a bit of a thrill
    to the Sandist, that the present Hotel Danieli had been the scene
    of its first remarkable stages. I am not sure indeed that the
    curiosity I speak of has not at last, in my breast, yielded to
    another form of wonderment--truly to the rather rueful question
    of why we have so continued to concern ourselves, and why the
    fond observer of the footprints of genius is likely so to
    continue, with a body of discussion, neither in itself and in its
    day, nor in its preserved and attested records, at all positively
    edifying. The answer to such an inquiry would doubtless reward
    patience, but I fear we can now glance at its possibilities only
    long enough to say that interesting persons--so they be of a
    sufficiently approved and established interest--render in some
    degree interesting whatever happens to them, and give it an
    importance even when very little else (as in the case I refer to)
    may have operated to give it a dignity. Which is where I leave
    the issue of further identifications.

    For the three sisters, in the kindest way in the world, had asked
    us if we already knew their sequestered home and whether, in case
    we didn't, we should be at all amused to see it. My own
    acquaintance with them, though not of recent origin, had hitherto
    lacked this enhancement, at which we both now grasped with the
    full instinct, indescribable enough, of what it was likely to
    give. But how, for that matter, either, can I find the right
    expression of what was to remain with us of this episode? It is
    the fault of the sad-eyed old witch of Venice that she so easily
    puts more into things that can pass under the common names that
    do for them elsewhere. Too much for a rough sketch was to be seen
    and felt in the home of the three sisters, and in the delightful
    and slightly pathetic deviation of their doing us so simply and
    freely the honours of it. What was most immediately marked was
    their resigned cosmopolite state, the effacement of old
    conventional lines by foreign contact and example; by the action,
    too, of causes full of a special interest, but not to be
    emphasised perhaps--granted indeed they be named at all--without
    a certain sadness of sympathy. If "style," in Venice, sits among
    ruins, let us always lighten our tread when we pay her a visit.

    Our steps were in fact, I am happy to think, almost soft enough
    for a death-chamber as we stood in the big, vague sala of
    the three sisters, spectators of their simplified state and their
    beautiful blighted rooms, the memories, the portraits, the
    shrunken relics of nine Doges. If I wanted a first chapter it was
    here made to my hand; the painter of life and manners, as he
    glanced about, could only sigh--as he so frequently has to--over
    the vision of so much more truth than he can use. What on earth
    is the need to "invent," in the midst of tragedy and comedy that
    never cease? Why, with the subject itself, all round, so
    inimitable, condemn the picture to the silliness of trying not to
    be aware of it? The charming lonely girls, carrying so simply
    their great name and fallen fortunes, the despoiled
    decaduta house, the unfailing Italian grace, the space so
    out of scale with actual needs, the absence of books, the
    presence of ennui, the sense of the length of the hours and the
    shortness of everything else--all this was a matter not only for
    a second chapter and a third, but for a whole volume, a
    dénoûment and a sequel.

    This time, unmistakably, it was the last--Wordsworth's
    stately "shade of that which once was great"; and it was
    almost as if our distinguished young friends had consented
    to pass away slowly in order to treat us to the vision. Ends are
    only ends in truth, for the painter of pictures, when they are
    more or less conscious and prolonged. One of the sisters had been
    to London, whence she had brought back the impression of having
    seen at the British Museum a room exclusively filled with books
    and documents devoted to the commemoration of her family. She
    must also then have encountered at the National Gallery the
    exquisite specimen of an early Venetian master in which one of
    her ancestors, then head of the State, kneels with so sweet a
    dignity before the Virgin and Child. She was perhaps old enough,
    none the less, to have seen this precious work taken down from
    the wall of the room in which we sat and--on terms so far too
    easy--carried away for ever; and not too young, at all events, to
    have been present, now and then, when her candid elders,
    enlightened too late as to what their sacrifice might really have
    done for them, looked at each other with the pale hush of the
    irreparable. We let ourselves note that these were matters to put
    a great deal of old, old history into sweet young Venetian faces.

    III

    In Italy, if we come to that, this particular appearance is far
    from being only in the streets, where we are apt most to observe
    it--in countenances caught as we pass and in the objects marked
    by the guide-books with their respective stellar allowances. It
    is behind the walls of the houses that old, old history is thick
    and that the multiplied stars of Baedeker might often best find
    their application. The feast of St. John the Baptist is the feast
    of the year in Florence, and it seemed to me on that night that I
    could have scattered about me a handful of these signs. I had the
    pleasure of spending a couple of hours on a signal high terrace
    that overlooks the Arno, as well as in the galleries that open
    out to it, where I met more than ever the pleasant curious
    question of the disparity between the old conditions and the new
    manners. Make our manners, we moderns, as good as we can, there
    is still no getting over it that they are not good enough for
    many of the great places. This was one of those scenes, and its
    greatness came out to the full into the hot Florentine evening,
    in which the pink and golden fires of the pyrotechnics arranged
    on Ponte Carraja--the occasion of our assembly--lighted up the
    large issue. The "good people" beneath were a huge, hot, gentle,
    happy family; the fireworks on the bridge, kindling river as well
    as sky, were delicate and charming; the terrace connected the two
    wings that give bravery to the front of the palace, and the
    close-hung pictures in the rooms, open in a long series, offered
    to a lover of quiet perambulation an alternative hard to resist.

    Wherever he stood--on the broad loggia, in the cluster of
    company, among bland ejaculations and liquefied ices, or in the
    presence of the mixed masters that led him from wall to wall--
    such a seeker for the spirit of each occasion could only turn it
    over that in the first place this was an intenser, finer little
    Florence than ever, and that in the second the testimony was
    again wonderful to former fashions and ideas. What did they do,
    in the other time, the time of so much smaller a society, smaller
    and fewer fortunes, more taste perhaps as to some particulars,
    but fewer tastes, at any rate, and fewer habits and wants--what
    did they do with chambers so multitudinous and so vast? Put their
    "state" at its highest--and we know of many ways in which it must
    have broken down--how did they live in them without the aid of
    variety? How did they, in minor communities in which every one
    knew every one, and every one's impression and effect had been
    long, as we say, discounted, find representation and emulation
    sufficiently amusing? Much of the charm of thinking of it,
    however, is doubtless that we are not able to say. This leaves us
    with the conviction that does them most honour: the old
    generations built and arranged greatly for the simple reason that
    they liked it, and they could bore themselves--to say nothing of
    each other, when it came to that--better in noble conditions than
    in mean ones.

    It was not, I must add, of the far-away Florentine age that I
    most thought, but of periods more recent and of which the sound
    and beautiful house more directly spoke. If one had always been
    homesick for the Arno-side of the seventeenth and eighteenth
    centuries, here was a chance, and a better one than ever, to
    taste again of the cup. Many of the pictures--there was a
    charming quarter of an hour when I had them to myself--were bad
    enough to have passed for good in those delightful years. Shades
    of Grand-Dukes encompassed me--Dukes of the pleasant later sort
    who weren't really grand. There was still the sense of having
    come too late--yet not too late, after all, for this glimpse and
    this dream. My business was to people the place--its own business
    had never been to save us the trouble of understanding it. And
    then the deepest spell of all was perhaps that just here I was
    supremely out of the way of the so terribly actual Florentine
    question. This, as all the world knows, is a battle-ground, to-
    day, in many journals, with all Italy practically pulling on one
    side and all England, America and Germany pulling on the other: I
    speak of course of the more or less articulate opinion. The
    "improvement," the rectification of Florence is in the air, and
    the problem of the particular ways in which, given such
    desperately delicate cases, these matters should be understood.
    The little treasure-city is, if there ever was one, a delicate
    case-- more delicate perhaps than any other in the world save
    that of our taking on ourselves to persuade the Italians that
    they mayn't do as they like with their own. They so absolutely
    may that I profess I see no happy issue from the fight. It will
    take more tact than our combined tactful genius may at all
    probably muster to convince them that their own is, by an
    ingenious logic, much rather ours. It will take more
    subtlety still to muster for them that dazzling show of examples
    from which they may learn that what in general is "ours" shall
    appear to them as a rule a sacrifice to beauty and a triumph of
    taste. The situation, to the truly analytic mind, offers in
    short, to perfection, all the elements of despair; and I am
    afraid that if I hung back, at the Corsini palace, to woo
    illusions and invoke the irrelevant, it was because I could
    think, in the conditions, of no better way to meet the acute
    responsibility of the critic than just to shirk it.

    [1899.]
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