May to December

Mrs Cross has waited a long time to become a respectable woman, but at what cost?

 

‘He should survive, signora,’ the doctor said, ‘but he took in a lot of water. All manner of diseases lurk in those canals. He will need to be watched carefully for a day and a night, at least. If he should develop a fever you must send for me at once.’ He spoke as though he expected to be of some use in such a circumstance. ‘During that time you may give him four drops of laudanum every four hours, but no more. Is that understood, Signora Cross?’

Si, dottore. Grazie tante.’ The woman spoke in fluent but heavily accented Italian. Despite her deshabille, she seemed calm and competent and he was satisfied his orders would be followed.

He had heard much talk about the newlywed English couple. The old women of the district were laughing behind their hands at the bride who was old enough to be the groom’s mother. She would not be a day younger than sixty. Her light brown hair was streaked with grey, but her strong face, though far from pretty, was well preserved. The man lying unconscious on the bed, fair and handsome, with his handlebar moustache now drooping sadly, would be barely forty.

The doctor stood, snapping his instrument bag shut. There was one matter on which he dearly wanted his curiosity satisfied. ‘Ma, signora, I still don’t understand how your husband ended up in the canal.’

The woman blushed but did not falter. ‘He just fell, dottore. It was exhaustion, I should think. We have been doing such a lot of sightseeing, and in this heat. I fear he was not used to it.’

The doctor glanced out through the glass-panelled doors to the balcony and its sturdy, waist-high balustrade. ‘Può darsi,’ he replied with a shrug.

Mrs Cross saw the doctor out, then sat on the bed beside her husband. She reached out and covered his left hand with her own. ‘Dearest, John,’ she sighed, ‘how, indeed.’ She patted his hand, her age-spotted one against his larger, smoother one beneath. Yet despite the difference, both wore the same newly minted gold bands, the first she had ever had the right to wear.

In her heart of hearts, it was George who was her true husband. George with whom she had lived in love and harmony for twenty-five years. George, who would have married her except for a cruel law that prevented him, that punished him for having compassion on an errant wife, for wanting to protect his children from scandal. Ah, well. He had never been able to give her his surname but she had taken his Christian name for all the world to see.

But it would not do for her father and her brother, her father who had died without acknowledging her, her brother who had repudiated her. Until now. He had written her such an affectionate letter on hearing of her marriage, had offered her his congratulations and best wishes, called her his dearest sister when once she had been the family’s disgrace. How had she changed? How was it that all her sins were forgiven her now that she bore a name other than her own?

She got up and went looking for her book, found it, returned and sat in the chair newly vacated by the doctor. She opened the book at the last page cut and stared at it for a while, looking up when her husband stirred and murmured in his sleep. What was he saying? Whose name was he calling?

She could not tell, for in reality she knew very little of him despite an acquaintance of many years. But then, one does not ask personal question of one’s man of business. When George had engaged him all they had known of John Cross was his reputation for honesty and diligence, which had proven to be well-deserved. In the years that followed they had discovered only that he had grown up in America, lived with his mother and loved literature. After George’s death he had continued to serve her loyally. He had been her one friend, her one companion in her grief, but it had still been a shock when he had first hinted that he wanted to be more than a friend.

She had demurred, of course, citing George’s recent death, but that had not been the true obstacle. Even after twenty-five years with the only man who had had the audacity to look beyond her unprepossessing looks and see the passionate woman beneath, she had found that she still harboured those old self-doubts. Her first, instinctive reaction to John’s proposal had been: What would he want with an ugly, old woman like me? So it had taken him eighteen months to convince her of his sincerity, eighteen months for her to come to appreciate the benefits of marriage to a personable young man, and only six weeks for those doubts to return.

Had she been selfish to enter this marriage? Had she been insensible to what the world’s cruelty might inflict on the husband of a woman such as she? Oh, how the gossips who had ever haunted her would relish this story if they were ever to know of it. She could hear them already: ‘They say he jumped into the canal on their wedding night, out of sheer terror at the thought of bedding her,’ followed by cruel laughter. They would discount the fact that she and John had been dear friends for several years, that they had been married and sharing a bed for six weeks, that they had been content in each other’s company. They would never know that only the previous afternoon their married life had seemed idyllic and John rapturously happy.

***

She had been sitting at the window, as she was now, with her book lying unread in her lap, waiting for John to return from an afternoon walk. She had been distracted then by the play of light on the ceiling above her reflected from the canal below. It was high-tide, aqua alta, and Venice, with its palazzi and campanile, seemed like a crumbling, ancient city that had been abandoned, flooded and repopulated by a new race. There was a thick layer of silence over the city, but below the silence, footsteps and voices carried along the water and echoed between the facades.

A gondola was approaching with Carlo standing in its stern expertly manipulating the long oar. Young, lithe and with laughing black eyes, Carlo had been their regular gondolier since they had arrived two weeks ago. Before him sat John in his familiar mustard brown coat. Carlo skilfully manoeuvred the boat beside the steps in front of their palazzo. He was smiling triumphantly. John was looking up at him, smiling in return. The young gondolier tied up the boat, and with one foot still on the shore, held out a hand to his passenger, but John did not move. Mrs Cross did not wonder that John could not understand what Carlo was asking of him as he spoke as little Italian as Carlo did English.

Carlo squatted in front of him and patted him on the knee, speaking to him earnestly. John reached out and gingerly rested a gentle fist on the hand on his knee. Carlo let it stay there for a moment then withdrew his hand with a grin. He stood and indicated the house with his head, standing ready to help John from the boat. John rose at last, paused a moment after taking the proffered hand then stepped out of the gondola. Carlo shooed him towards the door like a mother sending a reluctant boy to school.

Mrs Cross laughed to herself to see John’s awkwardness. Like a true Englishman, John found it hard to know how to respond to an Italian. Italians, even between men, were more tactile, warmer, than an Englishman was used to.

As the portone below closed with a dull thud, Carlo looked up and saw her standing on the balcony. ‘Buona sera, Signora Cross,’ he called up to her. ‘Shall I come back tonight?’

Mrs Cross smiled and waved. ‘Si, grazie, Carlo. Say about eight o’clock.’

Carlo untied the boat, poled it back into the middle of the canal then paddled away while her husband’s footsteps slowly climbed the staircase. When he entered the room John’s eyes had a glazed, faraway look about them, as though he had just discovered the existence of angels. His wife smiled at the gaze. Venice could have that effect on people. She had wondered how long he could resist the city’s charms.

‘Where have you been, my love? I was beginning to worry.’

John frowned as though trying to remember. ‘I got lost. You know how easy it is to get lost in the laneways here. I pitched up in Carlo’s district. He found me and brought me home.’

‘How fortunate for you.’

‘Yes.’ John looked at her, smiled and came over to kiss her hair. ‘Did you sleep well, Miss Evans?’

His wife looked at him with raised eyebrows.

He blushed. ‘Old habits. Did you sleep well, Mary Ann?’

‘No, I hardly slept at all. It was much too warm.’ Mary Ann took his hand in both of hers, drew him to her and offered her cheek for another kiss.

He kissed her dutifully then straightened. ‘Then we must get an early night.’

***

They drifted between dark palazzi whose windows glowed with golden candle light that played upon the black waters of the canal. Mary Ann drew her eyes away from the sight to look at John who sat opposite her in the gondola, gazing dreamily at the scene behind them. This is happiness, Mary Ann thought, floating in companionable silence in this fairyland, Oberon and his Titania. The gondola turned into a smaller canal from which came music and laughter. The festive sounds led them to a brightly lit palazzo. Through its open windows they could see fashionably dressed diners attended by young men in dark suits and long white aprons.

Carlo brought the boat to the steps below the restaurant, allowing it to bump only slightly as it touched the canal wall. On light feet, he leapt ashore and tied up the boat, then held out his hand to help John steady Mary Ann as she stood. She grasped the hand, leaning on it heavily as she gathered up her skirts and stepped out of the gondola.

The capocameriere came to the steps to greet her with a deep bow and a murmured ‘Buona sera, Signora.’ As Mary Ann gave him their names as Signor e Signora Cross she saw him scowl over her shoulder. She turned. John had not yet left the gondola. With one foot already on shore, his hand was still in Carlo’s steadying clasp. ‘John’, she called. John hastily dropped Carlo’s hand and jumped ashore, blushing at the capocameriere’s disapproving frown. Mary Ann drew herself up straight to counter the man’s impertinence and asked for their table.

But the head man’s insolence seemed to have infected the whole staff. All through the meal they referred first to her, meeting any request from John, any remark or attempt at a smile, with a cold look. Mary Ann watched helplessly as John’s flush deepened, mortified that his being seen with her in public should cause him such humiliation. They left the restaurant as soon as they decently could.

Carlo was waiting for them, though surprised to be roused from his comfortable seat so early. In tight-jawed silence, John handed Mary Ann into the gondola and stepped in after her, ignoring Carlo’s hand. Having settled her comfortably, John went forward and sat with his back to her, smoking a rare cigarillo with a shaking hand.

***

Mary Ann lay in the darkness listening to John’s breathing, wondering if he was asleep, wondering what comfort she could offer him. She felt him stir and re-arrange the pillow under his head. She turned to face his stiff back in its white night-shirt, reached out a hand and touched his arm.

‘John.’

John took a slow, long breath then turned onto his back.

Mary Ann tentatively caressed his shoulder. ‘My dear, we have been married now for six weeks. Is it not time…?’

John’s shoulder stiffened. ‘Have you not suffered enough already from my ineptitude?’

‘My love, I have long since forgotten it. One is bound to be a little nervous on one’s wedding night.’

He lay still, taking a few shallow breaths.

Mary Ann leant towards him, stretching her hand across his chest. She could feel his heart beating furiously, but he was barely breathing. ‘I know this might be… difficult… for you…but…but given the…the difference in our age and experience…if you could just allow yourself to be guided by me…’

She waited. He let out a long held breath. ‘Mary Ann,’ he said at last through a tight throat, ‘I…’ He breathed deeply. ‘I am very tired. It has been a long day.’

He turned away from her so that her hand dropped from him. Falling back on the bed, Mary Ann stared into the gloom.

***

She was brushing her hair when she heard the portone below close with a bang, but it was several moments before heavy steps climbed the stairs. She glanced across when John entered the room. He paused in the doorway. The air seemed to have done him little good. His face was even paler than when he left. Mary Ann swallowed an apology. It would do no good to refer to the events of last night. She turned her eyes back to the glass and continued brushing.

‘Another long walk, my dear?’

John turned sharply as though startled. ‘Yes. A long walk.’

She watched him in the glass as he moved to the centre of the room. A call from the canal must have caught his attention, for he stopped and stood staring out through the balcony doors.

Mary Ann primed her voice to a cheerful pitch. ‘I thought we might go on a longer trip today, to Murano. I have not yet taken you to see the glass blowers. It is a sight to see, such heavenly shapes and colours emerging from the fires of hell.’

John did not move or reply.

‘I asked Carlo to come a little earlier this morning.’

She thought she detected a movement, but still he did not turn.

She put down her brush and stood. ‘He should be here soon and I am still not dressed.’ She took a step towards him. ‘Will you help me tighten my stays, my dear?’

The silence was broken by raised voices which rose to their windows from outside asking for the whereabouts of la Signora Inglese. To still the sound of her name being echoed back and forth across the canal, Mary Ann walked past her husband and out onto the balcony.

Eccomi qui,’ she called back. ‘Who wants to see me?’

A small, wiry man with steel grey hair stood alone in a familiar gondola looking up at her, his expression grim. ‘It is I who would speak to you, signora.’ He spoke in formal Italian with none of the musicality of the Venetian dialect. ‘I am Carlo’s father. I came to tell you Carlo will not be coming today. Not today, nor any day.’

‘What is the matter? Is he unwell?’

‘I will not let him come.’

‘But why? What has happened?’

‘You ask your husband why, signora. See if he will tell you. I have said what I came to say.’ And with that he pushed off into the canal and paddled away.

Mary Ann walked inside to escape the eyes and laughter below. John was still standing where she had left him.

‘That was Carlo’s father. He will not allow Carlo to come to us again.’

‘No, I should think not.’

‘So, you know the reason for this.’

He turned away from her gaze. ‘I should not have gone there.’

Mary Ann followed him. ‘Where? To Carlo’s house? But why?’

John shook his head as though to clear it. ‘To apologise. Just to apologise. For last night.’

Mary Ann breathed a sigh of relief. ‘I see. You were afraid Carlo would think we were too cool towards him.’

It had been a silent ride home last night. When they arrived at their own steps, Mary Ann had asked Carlo to come earlier in the morning without a word of thanks, and John had not even paused to wish him goodnight. There was cause to fear the boy might be offended.

‘So you went to make an apology, but there was a misunderstanding, perhaps?’ She sat beside John where he had collapsed into a chair and reached across to his hand. ‘Did you, perchance, find yourself inadvertently compounding the offence?’ She clasped his hand. ‘John, my dear, you must not take this too hard. These misunderstandings are common. Italians take offence so easily. They are tremendously proud, despite their poverty. And we English will never really understand them, nor they us.’

John looked at her then, his eyes wide and empty. ‘Understand? No, never understand.’

Mary Ann smiled at him reassuringly. ‘The situation is not so dire, my love. We shall easily find another gondolier. Soon we shall laugh over this. It will be a travellers’ tale to tell our friends in England.’

John pulled his hand away and shook his head. ‘No, not to tell…’ He stood and walked away from her.

Mary Ann sighed. With his little Italian, John should not have attempted such a thing, should have allowed her to apologise to Carlo if apology were needed, but as a man he would have thought it his place, not hers. She would not say as much, would not seem to blame him while he was in this mood.

She approached him where he stood on the balcony, leaning on the balustrade, his back to her. ‘John, my dear, I think I should write a note for you to take down to the portiere, asking him to find us another gondolier. For an hour from now, do you think?’

She waited but there was no reply. She retreated to her desk, took a sheet and was dipping a pen into the ink pot when the silence was pierced by a loud splash followed by shouts and screams.

Mary Ann ran to the balcony. John’s mustard brown coat was floating in the canal.

***

John stirred and tried to speak, but his weak voice caught on the word he was trying to form. But now Mary Ann thought she knew that name, knew what John had found in Venice and what he had lost, knew the light, the hope, that had shone in his eyes and been so quickly extinguished. They had been drawn together by that same hope, had thought to find in each other salvation from the loneliness that loomed before them. But it had been a false hope, and now was no more. She could feel it draining from her, and the emptiness it left behind.

John called out again. Mary Ann reached for his hand to calm him, but he began to thrash about. Hurriedly she dripped laudanum into a glass of sweet wine and brought it to his mouth. He drank, then fell back and slept again.

Mary Ann took up her book, but read no more of it.

***

‘You should survive,’ the doctor said, snapping his instrument bag shut. ‘It is only dyspepsia. Make sure you eat well but not too much, and drink only wine and water that has been thoroughly boiled. No coffee or spirits.’

‘Thank you,’ the Englishman said, pressing a generous fee into the doctor’s hand. ‘Tell me, dottore,’ he continued as he tucked his shirt back into his trousers, ‘do you often come to this house?’

The doctor eyed the Englishman’s catlike smile, wondering what else the coins were expected to buy. ‘I live close by. The portiere often calls me if the guests of the house have need of me.’

‘Then perhaps you were called to see an English couple that was staying here last year, early in the summer. A newly married couple, though a bit more… mature shall we say than your usual honeymooners.’

The doctor had come to like the English Signora over the time he tended her husband. He had no intention of exposing her to this man’s obvious prurience.

‘The rumours are,’ the Englishman continued, undaunted by the doctor’s silence, ‘that the husband threw himself into the canal.’

The doctor hesitated. He too would like news of them so knew he had to give something in exchange. ‘The rumours are exaggerated. He fell into the canal quite by accident. A fainting spell brought upon by the heat, no more. You English will insist on going abroad in the heat of the day.’

The Englishman seemed disappointed. ‘I see.’

‘But, how are Signor e Signora Cross doing these days?’ the doctor asked as he prepared to leave.

The Englishman turned to a mirror to adjust his necktie. ‘I am afraid it is a sad story, dottore. Mrs Cross died last December. It was quite sudden.’

Che peccato,’ the doctor mused as he descended the stairs to the portone. ‘They were only married in May.’

© Pauline Montagna 2006

 

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