As the gondola pulled away from the Grand Canal, and out into the wide lagoon, the waves began to toss and the shifting, sun-filled clouds made dappled reflections on the silvery sea. The ancient buildings with their delicate tracery silhouetted against the magnificent expanse of sky and shining water, merged into a series of exquisite pictures. Elizabeth stared, almost overcome with enchantment, and held her breath. Darcy smiled, and Lord Byron cocked his head at her. “I always like seeing an innocent young person out on the lagoon for the first time,” he observed. “There is something so refreshing in their rapture.”
Elizabeth felt that she was being laughed at. “But you love it yourself,” she said. “As many times as you have taken this ride, you have never grown tired of it.”
“Quite true. I fell in love with Venice before ever I saw it; as a boy, it was the fairy city of my imagination. It was perhaps the only time in my life that reality turned out to be better than the dream.”
“One could traverse these islands again and again, and never tire of the views,” nodded Mr. Darcy.
“I believe you are taking us to this monastery island as a mere excuse to get out upon the water,” said Elizabeth archly.
“As to that – no. I have a purpose in my visits to San Lazzaro degli Armeni. One cannot always be tossing in ravishment without ballast; and I require some good hard study. The Armenian language is difficult enough to fit that bill admirably. And then, yes, there is the daily ride back and forth. Sometimes I swim.”
“What, swim all this distance?” asked Darcy incredulously. “That must be most hazardous – it is a mile or two at least, I should think, and with what currents!”
“It can be done, if one is an athlete,” said Byron carelessly. “It is only in swimming that you truly become one with the lagoon: like a peculiarly forked Venetian fish. But here we are, nearing the island, and I see Father Pascal Auscher has come out to welcome us. He is the monastery’s librarian, a most learned man.”
“Are you writing poetry in the Armenian?” Elizabeth dared to ask.
“I? Oh, heavens no. My mind, as I say, wanted something craggy to break upon, and it been almost broken in mastering thirty of the thirty-eight scratches of their cursed alphabet, thus far.”
“Do you require difficulty for its own sake?” Darcy inquired.
“Not entirely. There are classical secrets to uncover. Certain ancient texts, lost translations from the Greek originals, exist still in the Armenian. There is even an ancient manuscript about the life of Alexander the Great.”
“It is very good of the friars to teach you,” said Darcy.
Byron gave him a quick look. “Yes, very. They will not take money, so the only way I have found to repay them for their teaching is by translating and publishing their Armenian English grammar. And that is another exacting task.”
“So you are doing both scholarly and poetical work?” asked Elizabeth. “It seems too much for one man to do at the same time.”
“What is life if not lived intensely, Mrs. Darcy?” he said, his eyes burning as he faced her. “I must do the most work, have the most experience. We shall all be dead in a trice, so exertion must come now. I do divide the labour, and refrain from writing poetry on San Lazzaro. I leave that for my home task, at night. At present I am completing the last canto of my Childe Harold. You have perhaps read the earlier sections.”
Elizabeth’s eyes sparkled, but her husband answered for her. “Yes, my wife and I have read the earlier Cantos together, and admired them greatly. Her reading is remarkably good, and I believe she knows some of the stanzas by heart, do not you, Elizabeth?”
“That is no unusual achievement, when a work is so famous,” she replied demurely. “I can say this much, the opening:
Whilome in Albion’s isle there dwelt a youth,
Who ne in virtue’s ways did take delight;
But spent his days in riot most uncouth,
And vexed with mirth the drowsy ear of Night.
Ah, me! in sooth he was a shameless wight,
Sore given to revel and ungodly glee;
Few earthly things found favour in his sight
Save concubines and carnal companie,
And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.
I wonder how truthful a portrayal that may be of your Lordship’s self?” she asked archly.
“You can probably recognize the intensity of pleasure as well as work, as a true enough picture of me,” he replied with a small bow. “But your recitation, its tones, its expression, its understanding, is something extraordinary; I suspect your wife, Mr. Darcy, of having blue stockings!”
“She has a very fine mind, your Lordship, but I believe a description of her as a bluestocking is inaccurate.”
“I do have a sister who might be called one,” Elizabeth spoke up. “Mary is reading almost all the time she is awake; and she makes extracts.”
“Ah, that is not a blue-stocking, that is a pedant,” Lord Byron replied. “Is she as pretty as yourself?”
Elizabeth did not answer and her husband replied, “No, to be truthful, Miss Mary is rather plain.”
“Ah, I was in hopes she was as lovely as your good wife, both in mind and in beauty,” he said, stretching out his arm expressively. Elizabeth lowered her eyes, and Mr. Darcy said: “You give me reason to recite now, your Lordship. You have written a poem yourself, that has always put me in mind of my Lizzy:
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes.”
Lord Byron smiled appreciatively. “Most well applied, sir,” he said. “And in return, I will share with you a portion of my Fourth Canto, that I have not sent to the publisher yet. It is about Venice, and may do to commemorate this very meeting:
I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
A palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanters wand.”
“That is beautiful! Thank you!” exclaimed Elizabeth, her dark eyes shining. Lord Byron gazed back at her intently.
“We must leave Lord Byron to do his work, my dear,” said Darcy quietly, “shall we have our walk now?” She took his arm.
A young friar accompanied them, and after showing them such curiosities as an Egyptian mummy, some rare papyrus manuscripts and ancient bronze armaments, they were relieved and lightened to step out into the garden, filled with early roses, which, the friar explained, the brothers made into rose petal jam.
By late afternoon Elizabeth was tired, and relieved that Lord Byron thought two hours of hard study sufficient. The monks served them a collation of bread and cheese and their own wine in the refectory, which was not then in use for the mealtime of the ninety monks; and then the visitors were escorted by a monastic contingent down to his lordship’s fancifully embellished private gondola. The ride back to their palazzo on the Grand Canal, was even more beautiful than the morning one, and they exclaimed with delight at the wash of purple colours the sky was taking on.
Lord Byron civilly invited the Darcys to dine in his quarters, and they thought it not polite to refuse. They were waited upon by many servants (“Fourteen,” he said casually), who laid out a fine Italian feast for them. A handsome, fleshy Italian woman of perhaps thirty, her bosoms spilling out of her tight satin gown, sat at the table and kept her eyes fixed on Byron, moodily glancing at Elizabeth from time to time, but he barely bothered to introduce her, only commenting, “She is an opera singer, but does not speak English.” She neither sang nor spoke, but ate steadily and silently.
Byron himself ate only biscuits and water, and Darcy wondered he had so little appetite, when the repast was so excellent. “These sausages with lentils – “
“Cotechino col Salgravi,” said Byron with a smile. “A famous Venetian dish.”
“And this cheese stew – what flavor!”
“Latticini tiratti, yes, but I can’t eat it myself. The truth is that I have only too much appetite,” Byron said ruefully. “I am forced to eat little, or I swell up like a balloon. To tell the truth, I enjoy the athletic exercise part of the business more than the starving.”
“You swim every day, then?”
“No, my exercise is mostly taken with women,” Byron admitted. Elizabeth did not know where to look, and tried to think that he meant walking.
“It is a kind of exercise I can do many times a day; and it is always interesting to have a great variety,” he said easily.
Darcy rose to his feet, towering over the lounging lordship. “I am sure you will excuse us, Lord Byron,” he said evenly, “we are not yet so Italianized as for me to wish to expose my wife to such talk.”
“Please admit my apologies,” said Lord Byron, with an airy wave, “if I have offended you; and be assured that I will say no more of such things. Surely you will not hold against me my little push to discover if you might like to ‘go native,’ the pair of you, and partake of the Italian sport. Most people do, I assure you, for it is all mistresses and cavalier servientes here, and no one thinks of taking any offense. It is just as you please.”
Elizabeth held her napkin to her mouth in fascination and horror, and rose to stand beside her husband without a word.
“Yes, I should have enjoyed playing the game with both of you – your wife has the most bewitching eyes I ever beheld, and you are a fine figure yourself. But if it is not to be, I will say no more of the subject. Do not be uneasy, but stay and enjoy the last course. Seleni – nuts you would call them, almonds and chestnuts, as well as pears and oranges, and some very fine coffee. We can talk of poetry. Have you read my friend Shelley?”
“I am sorry, but I am afraid we cannot stay,” said Darcy with a cold bow.
“Never mind,” said Byron, lifting his glass with perfect self composure. “The Carnival is fast approaching, and with it, new amusements and intrigue for me. Be warned that you may find it too debauched a scene for yourselves, but I will not bore you again about my dissipations. I bid you good night, good people.”
Darcy drew Elizabeth’s arm through his, and ushered her with quick footsteps out of Byron’s part of the palazzo and back into their own.
They did not speak until they were within the confines of their own garden, dark but for the chandeliers glittering from within the palace. “My dearest Elizabeth,” said Darcy, evidently deeply distressed, “I am more sorry than I can say, to have risked your being insulted by such a man. I had believed that in spite of the stories about his broken marriage and his personal oddities, Lord Byron was a gentleman.”
“An eccentric gentleman, to be sure,” she said, with a little laugh, shaking her head. “I do not blame you at all, or even regret the encounter; for we have not been harmed. Lord Byron only harms himself. Indeed, I feel very sorry for him.”
“Sorry for him – for that blackguard, that cad!” exclaimed Darcy. “I love your kindness of heart, Elizabeth, but to pity wickedness is going too far.”
“Is it not to be pitied?” she asked. “He has such a darkened mind! It must be a constant source of pain to him. You do not think he is happy in his debaucheries and his cynicicm, do you? I am convinced he must be miserable.”
Darcy scoffed. “Miserable – in his palace, with his monkeys and mistresses! His fame and his fortune. Well, I only hope we do not encounter him again.”
“We probably never shall,” Elizabeth reassured him soothingly.
As she was preparing for bed, she was surprised when the little Italian maid who brushed her hair slipped back into the chamber after the brushing, and with an appealing but silent look, slipped a note into her hand. Elizabeth opened it before even thinking what it might be, and found herself reading an invitation from his lordship, to slip out and meet him in the garden at midnight, if she would like to continue their discussion of – poetry.
Elizabeth crumpled the note, and shook her head at the maid, indicating there would be no reply. She sat down at her dressing table again, to think. What should she do? She always practiced openness with her husband, and they had never kept secrets from one another. If she kept this note a secret, it would be the first one, and what a secret! Her first impulse was to show him the note, but a second thought stayed her hand. Mr. Darcy would do only one thing upon seeing it, she was sure: he would inevitably challenge Lord Byron to a duel. She deplored these ways of men, for even if neither was hurt – or killed – in the encounter, there would surely be an open scandal. Their names would be dragged through the vilest Venetian gossip; the British Embassy would be involved. There was no thinking of it, she must be silent. Such things could not be allowed to happen.
But she wanted more than anything to show her husband the note, and to abide by whatever course he thought best in dealing with the impertinence of that man. She hated it being all her own decision, and hiding something so troubling. Perhaps he would insist on them leaving Venice at once, and thankful she would be for that. Possibilities whirled, and she could not make up her mind. What should she do?
“Are you coming to bed, my darling Lizzy?” came his voice from the bedroom.
“Yes, yes, at once,” she answered hurriedly, and put the little wadded-up note under a Capodimonte cupid on her dressing-table.