“I believe we will be quite comfortable here, and the dampness need not be a concern,” Elizabeth told her husband after an inspection of their fantastical and antique “new” quarters at the Palazzo Moncenigo. “These crumbling palaces on the Grand Canal have such a ruinous beauty, there is a strange enchantment about them.”
“I always wanted you to know them,” said Darcy. “This place is the very essence of romance, is not it?”
“Oh, yes. And really, I should not have worried about the children. These apartments are perfectly healthful.“
“Of course,” exclaimed Mr. Darcy, “I did make the most careful enquiries. Other English travelers are venturing into Italy now, and these quarters were particularly highly recommended. There are fireplaces enough, you see, and in winter a good supply of clean rainwater – I should not attempt Venice in the summer months, but we will be back home in England by then. The market at the Rialto is quite close by with the freshest food, and there are servants aplenty.”
“That Venetian cook is a gem,” agreed Elizabeth, “and our own servants can make simpler food for the little ones. Yes, I do believe our lodgings will suit extremely well, and we will have a happy time. I can hardly wait to try strolling by the canals of Venice with you. How delightful!”
“And when we get tired, we can slip into a gondola,” said Darcy, with an arch smile. “We can go exploring whenever we like. I would not care to entrust the children to only Venetian servants, but our own people can look after them very well.”
“Yes, this house – or palazzo – seems to be very smoothly run. If it is good enough for Lord Byron it must do for us,” Elizabeth laughed. “I wonder if we shall see anything of him?”
“Oh, I doubt it,” said Darcy. “You can see that Palazzo Moncenigo consists of four buildings; our second floor piano mobile apartment is in the Casa Nuovo, the leftmost palazzo. It is the second oldest, I believe, sixteenth century. Lord Byron’s palazzo is the second from the right; I am told it is a Palladio design, and that his lordship is renting it for four hundred pounds per anno. With his menagerie.”
“Gracious! Well, I daresay we will be safe from him, then, two houses away, though I hope he does not keep tigers in the garden. There seem to be very beautiful, large grounds, where the children might play – I hope that is not where he keeps wild animals.”
“I should have made more extensive inquiries,” said Darcy, concerned, “but when I heard he was not housed in the same building as ourselves, I asked no farther.”
“You could not be blamed,” Elizabeth was beginning to say, when footsteps were heard and voices raised. A flustered maid opened the salon door, and said, “Forgive me, madam – sir, he would come in – I could not stop him – “ and Lord Byron himself walked through the door, accompanied by two dogs and two monkeys.
“To what do I owe this intrusion – “ began Darcy, rising with dignity, as his Lordship marched directly up to him.
“Forgive me sir, but I am Lord Byron, and you are English!” exclaimed the intruder.
Darcy and Elizabeth stared at him with amazement. He was such a figure as they had never seen before: a very handsome man, of about thirty, with curly chestnut hair and a noble forehead as became a poet, but most striking of all was his expressive countenance, so mobile, so alive, that it attracted their interest and attention, in spite of their extreme surprise.
Darcy recovered enough to say, “Both are self-evident facts. I am Fitzwilliam Darcy, of Pemberley, and this is Mrs. Darcy.”
Byron bowed, and seemed to collect himself after his initial discomposure. “Darcy – of Pemberley?” he exclaimed. “But of course, I know who you are – owner of the finest library in Derbyshire, if I am not mistaken. I only wish I had been told your name before, then we might have escaped this awkwardness. I fear I owe you many apologies, sir. And madam.”
“I am glad you know my library, if not myself,” replied Darcy, with a bow, “and be assured that it does contain several volumes of your Lordship’s work, which my wife and I have enjoyed perusing.” Elizabeth curtsied in corroboration.
“But to what do we owe your interest, if I may ask?” he pursued. “What is this, about our being English?”
“I will tell you, if you will grant me the pleasure,” said Byron.
“Certainly,” said Elizabeth, “Please be seated, and will you have some tea?”
He looked at her in amusement. “You are English, indeed, and I have foresworn tea.”
“Something stronger then,” suggested Darcy politely.
“Your hospitality is remarkable, and most appreciated, considering the rudeness with which I have treated you. If I may, a glass of milk – ? My diet is singular. And I hope my animals are not a trouble to you. They are very well behaved, and tame; your little ones will be quite safe, with the dogs, and the monkeys.”
Darcy nodded to five-year-old Charles, who had been sitting on a satin sofa with his younger sister, Jane, all eyes, gazing at the animals. The baby, Fitzwilliam, slept in his cradle, but Charles and Jane trotted forth and soon were engaged in laughing and patting the pets.
“What beautiful children,” said the poet wistfully. “I have two little daughters, but I never see them. It is very sad.”
“That is a sad circumstance, indeed,” said Elizabeth with sympathy. “Are they in England?”
“Yes, my older girl, Ada, is with Lady Byron. She is two and a half years old now, but I have not seen her since her birth. She is my legitimate child. And there is a new one, born this spring – a natural daughter, Allegra. Named her after a Jewish bluestocking, but I have not laid eyes on her yet. I believe I will have her bringing up, however, with any luck. Her mother is not capable.”
Elizabeth lowered her eyes, not sure what to say to this talk about legitimate and illegitimate children, and Darcy tried to change the subject.
“So you came to see us because we were English, did you, my Lord?” he asked.
Byron laughed. “No! Quite on the contrary. I abhor my own race. I was born to set people by the ears, it seems, and have had nothing but pain from my home country – I detest it. No, to tell the truth, I was incensed at the thought that English people were to be my neighbors!”
“Dear me,” said Elizabeth, “but we are two buildings away!”
“Oh, my apologies, Mrs. Darcy. Your sort of enlightened gentlefolk are not the objects of my hatred. It is that Venice – my Venice – has become pestilential with English this year, since the war ended. A parcel of staring boobies who gape at everything. They crane their necks as I go by in my gondola, they approach me as I walk upon the Lido, ladies slip me notes and steal embraces, and I am at all hours at the mercy of this tribe of wretches and celebrity-seekers. There are no English here except birds of passage. I cannot wait until they tire of the place, and the Continent is roomy and agreeable again.”
“Well, you are safe enough from us, Lord Byron,” said Darcy somewhat dryly, “and we are birds of passage enough, for we only expect a residence here of a few weeks, and then a stay in Florence will conclude our Italian journeyings.”
“No, no, do not mistake me, you are people of culture and manners, and I am thankful to have such as my neighbors. I shall try to make amends for my barbarous initial treatment of you. I assure you, you will see no more excesses from me.”
“Do you mind telling me about your animals, Lord Byron?” Elizabeth asked. “We heard you had a tiger, and we hope our children will be safe in the gardens?”
Byron laughed. “I am a great lover of animals, Mrs. Darcy, but I assure you I have no dangerous ones, no tigers! My two mastiffs, you see, are very well trained, very polite; the monkeys are harmless; there are several cats, and a tame fox. We did have a wolf, with the manners of a large dog, but it sadly died.”
“And they are all kept in the gardens?”
“Sometimes; or they wander at will in and out of the palazzo, especially when it rains,” said Byron carelessly. “I am afraid I am wilder than my animals, and I hope my irregular sort of life is not at odds with yours, but you do understand that this is Venice. Here you will find that unlawful couples and their intrigues are the rule.”
“I am afraid we are that anomaly, a happily married couple,” said Mr. Darcy, with a look at Elizabeth, “and hope that fact will not cause you any discomfort.”
“Of course it will not,” said Byron civilly, “Live and let live. I hope – “
At that moment screams were heard from the garden side of the house and an agitated young woman burst into the salon from the other end. She was a beautiful girl, or would have been had her hair not been disordered with her agitation, and her expression contorted in rage. Her shouts seemed to consist of loud complaints in the Venetian patois, so rapidly delivered that neither Darcy or Elizabeth, with only a slight knowledge of Italian, could comprehend.
“Margarita! Be quiet – how dare you – “ spluttered Byron, holding her by the shoulders and then speaking firmly in Italian so she quieted somewhat. He apologetically turned to his hosts.
“This is what I was speaking of, this being pursued constantly,” he explained.
“But she is not English,” Elizabeth pointed out, bewildered.
“You are quite right, of course. This is Margarita Cogno, and she is a young madwoman who has long wished to be connected to me, and I have had to throw her out of my house many times, but she keeps returning. Left her husband, a butcher, and threatens to throw herself into the canal. Oh, Lord, it is too hard to explain – she has settled here, and is like a fixture. There is nothing for it, I had better go before making things worse. Come, dogs – again I cannot apologize enough, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy – Margarita, shut up your caterwauling – come – “
And Lord Byron marched out of the Darcys’ apartment, followed by the lamenting woman and the animals, leaving Darcy and Elizabeth staring at each other. At the door he turned back.
“Oh, I say, Darcy – would you like to come to the Island of San Lazzaro with me one day? I have been studying Armenian with the monks there, and I think you would find it curious. They really have a very fine library.”
“Yes. I go nearly every day. Unfortunately the Armenian alphabet is impossible, but I wanted a really knotty intellectual chore, and I have found it. I’m compiling a dictionary.”
“I have not heard of San Lazarro,” said Darcy, a little bewildered.
“Then you should come and see it. The monks are most hospitable. If I may make bold to suggest, Mrs. Darcy would find the excursion of interest, too. Have you ever visited a monastery, madam?”
“I – ? Why, no.”
“Please come then, both of you. Would Wednesday suit you? My gondola is tied up down below, and one convenience of our all living at Moncenigo will be the ease of traveling together. I should like to show you some of the sights of Venice, and upon my word, San Lazzaro is the best place of all to visit.”
Looking somewhat askance at his wife, who nodded reassuringly, Darcy accepted the invitation.
“Ten o’clock Wednesday, then. So glad to have met you – No, Margarita, I will have nothing to do with you. Go back to your quarters at once.”
Byron strode out.
“Well, if he is not the most extraordinary – “ said Darcy.
“You might say that!”
“I hope you were not too offended, Elizabeth. He is a wild man, that is certain. And his morals must simply pass credence.”
“Yes,” she said thoughtfully, “but do you know, I feel rather sorry for him.”