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VENETIAN COURTESY

by Baron Corvo (Frederik William Rolfe, 1860-1913)


In early October I pottered about the north lagoon in my barcheta. The weather was so deliciously like full summer that I made no change in my customs, but continued to live in the open while writing Mr X's third book for him. I ought to explain that my own irrefrainable energy, and a series of circumstances, and a coming-together of a parcel of unscrupulous scoundreloids, had made me a "Literary Ghost." I wrote (or rewrote) other people's bad books; and eminent publishers innocently published my work under the inca pable authors' names. One must do something - at least, I must, - and though, as a Ghost, one earns less than a pound a week and the most hideous reputation, still, one pegs on, till the blissful day when one has snaffled an opportunity of publishing beautiful absolute works of one's very own.

I came to Venice in August for a six weeks' holiday; and lived and worked and slept in my barcheta al most always. It seemed that, by staying on, I could most virtuously and most righteously cheat autumn and winter. Such was the effect of this kind of Venitian life on me, that I felt no more than twenty-five years old, in everything excepting valueless experience and valuable disillusion. The bounding joy of vigorous health, the physical capacity for cheerful (nay, gay) endurance, the careless, untroubled mental activity, the perfectly gorgeous appetite, the prompt, delicate, dreamless nights of sleep, which betoken healthy youth, - all this (with indescribable happiness) I had triumphantly snatched from solitude with the sun and the sea. I went swimming half a dozen times a day, beginning at white dawn, and ending after sunsets which set the whole lagoon ablaze with amethyst and topaz. Between friends, I will confess that I am not guiltless of often getting up in the night and popping silently overboard to swim for an hour in the clear of a great gold moon - plenilunio - or among the waving reflections of the stars. (O my goodness me, how heavenly a spot that is!) When I wanted change of scene and anchorage, I rowed with my two gondoglieri; and there is noth ing known to physiculturists (for giving you "poise" and the organs and figure of a slim young Diadymenos) like rowing standing in the Mode Venetian. It is jolly hard work; but no other exercise bucks you up as does springing forward from your toe-tips and stretching forward to the full in pushing the oar, or produces such exquisite lassitude at night when your work is done. And I wrote quite easily for a good seven hours each day. Could anything be more felicitous?

And, one day, I replenished my stock of provisions at Burano; and at sunset we rowed away to find a sta tion for the night. Imagine a twilight world of cloudless sky and smoothest sea, all made of warm, liquid, limpid heliotrope and violet and lavender, with bands of burnished copper set with emeralds, melting, on the other hand, into the fathomless blue of the eyes of the prides of peacocks, where the moon rose, rosy as mother-of-pearl. Into such glory we three advanced the black barcheta, solemnly, silently, when the last echo of Avemmaria died.

Slowly we came out north of Burano into the open lagoon; and rowed eastward to meet the night, as far as the point marked by five pali, where the wide canal curves to the south. Slowly we went. There was some thing so holy - so majestically holy - in that evening silence, that I would not have it broken even by the quiet plash of oars. I was lord of time and place. No engagement cried to be kept. I could go when and where I pleased, fast or slow, far or near. And I chose the near and the slow. I did more. So unspeakably gorgeous was the peace on the lagoon just then, that it inspired me with a lust for doing nothing at all but sitting and absorbing impressions motionlessly. That way come thoughts, new, generally noble.

The wide canal, in which we drifted, is a highway. I have never seen it unspeckled by the sandoli of Buranelli fishers. Steam-boats, and tank-barges of fresh water for Burano, and the ordinary barks of carriage, disturb it, not always, but often. My wish was to find a smaller canal, away - away. We were (as I said) at the southern side, at the southward curve marked by five pali. Opposite, on the other bank, begins the long line of pali which shows the deep-water way right down to the Ricevitoria of Treporti; and there, at the beginning of the line, I spied the mouth of a canal which seemed likely to suit me. We rowed across to it, and entered. It tended north-eastward for two or three hundred metres, and then bended like an elbow north westward. It looked quite a decent canal, perhaps forty metres in width, between sweet mud-banks clothed with sea-lavender about two-foot lengths above high-water mark in places. We pushed inshore, near to the inner bank at the elbow, stuck a couple of oars into the mud fore and aft, and moored there.

Baicolo e Caicio got out the draught-board and cigarettes, and played below their breath on the puppa; while I sat still, bathing my soul in peace, till the night was dark and Selene high in the limpid sapphire- blue. Then they lighted the fanali, and put up the impermeable awning with wings and curtains to cover the whole barcheta; and made a Parmentier soup to eat with our wine and polenta. And, when kapok-cushions had been arranged on the floor, and summer sleeping-bags laid over them, we took our last dash overboard, said our prayers, and went to bed. Baicola at prova with his feet toward mine amidships, and Caicio under the puppa with his feet well clear of my pillowed head. So, we slept.

Soon after sunrise I awakened: it was a sunrise of opal and fire: the boys were deep in slumber. I took down the awning, and unmoored quietly, and mounted the puppa to row about in the dewy freshness in search of a fit place for my morning plunge. I am very particular about this. Deep water I must have - as deep as possible - I being what the Venetians call "appassionato per l'acqua." Beside that, I have a vehement dyspathy against getting entangled in weed or in mud, to make my toe-nails dirtier than my finger-nails. And, being congenitally myopic, I see more clearly in deep water than in shallow, almost as clearly, in fact, as with a concave monocle on land. So I left the barcheta to drift with the current, while I took soundings with the long oar of the puppa, in several parts of the canal, near both banks as well as in the middle. No where could I touch bottom; and this signified that my bathing-place was more than four metres in depth. Needless to say that I gave a joyful morning yell, which dragged from sleep the luxury- loving Baicolo to make coffee, and the faithful dog Caicio to take my oar and keep the barcheta near me; and then I plunged overboard to revel in the limpid green water. Lord, how lovely is Thy smooth salt sea flowing on flesh!

When I heaved myself inboard again, the ship was cleared and tidied for the day, and the coffee ready. I spread a towel on cushions and sprawled to dry in the sun while I sipped. The boys dived and swam, return ing to take their refreshment while I rolled the day's first cigarette.

After we had gotten into our shorts and zephyrs, the awning was put up against the increasing sun-blaze; and I opened my paper-case, beginning to think about my morning's writing. Baicolo and Caicio did little odd jobs of polishing brass and steel work and scraping the oars, to whiten them, with broken shreds of glass. But first it occurred to me to look at my chart of the lagoon to find the name of the exquisite canal where I lay - the canal which had all desirable qualities of depth and width and about a chilometre of length, emerging northward by a delta in the Canale Dossa Piccola, which goes to my island full of skeletons. Also, it had wide, wide views in every direction, was very private and concealed (by its curves) from highways, and at the same time it was not half an hour's row from Burano. In brief, an ideal camping-place - lonely, lovely, free, and within easy reach of fresh bread and water and salads. And on my chart there was no trace of it, excepting a dwarfed and nameless mouth of it beginning just before the first palo of the main canal, running north-eastward about a hundred metres, and then losing itself miserably in the great Marsh of the Sentrega. I was much annoyed.

I was very much annoyed, because only the week before I had found a high, large grassy island (an abode of rats) north of the canal highway from Venice to the mainland at San Giuliano, and close to that hamlet, but altogether unmarked on my official chart. I was, in fact, frightfully annoyed, because there could be no possible shadow of a doubt about my latest find being long and wide and deep, and much more important than innumerable little canals not more than ten metres wide and a metre (or less) in depth, which the same chart sedulously indicated. I took a second survey, verified my previous impressions, and became aware that there was no writing other people's books possible for me that day.

"To Venice, suddenly, where I shall attend to my affairs, while you may have liberty to ' far festa ' and to salute your genitors and to view the kinematographs," said I to my gondoglieri.

We reached the city in time for lunch. The boys emptied the barcheta and made all secure before they scampered away. I changed into clean flannels, and went to Ascension to cough at Ongania Amadeo (seller of my charts), asking whether he was sure that he had not sold me obsolete ones. He consulted the official list of charts of the Estuario Veneto issued by the Hydrographic Institute, and showed me that mine, being dated 1905, were then the very latest. I think he was a little upset by my polite insinuation; but when I told him about the unmarked island by San Giuliano, and of the canal across the Palude della Sentrega, he be came interested. And (let me tell you) an interested Venetian can be extremely interesting, almost as inter esting as a sailor. In that short conversation I learned unheard of and undreamed of mysteries about the va garies of the lagoon, its shifting mud-banks, its daily changing channels.

"But this island and this canal which His Signoria has found seem to be permanent and important, and I beg that he will so far disturb himself as to pass by the Hydrographic Department of the Arsenal and to speak of these high matters with my friend Commandant Angelo Francon, who has them in charge," said Amadeo Ongania. So I strolled up to the Arsenal, and found a large and full commandant, with fine clear eyes, a cigarette, and the calmest and strongest of manners - just the sort of commandant to become one of the heroes of the Libyan campaign, as he did subsequently. Out of sheer selfish laziness I asked whether he understood English. He replied in that tongue, speaking quite fluently and beautifully, but so deliberately and so absolutely without any kind of emphasis that all his syllables seemed to be hyphened together with a comma after each. "Yes-," he said, "I-, can-, un-, der-, stand-, Eng-, lish-, if-, you-, will-, have-, the-, ve-, ry-, great-,kind-, ness-, to-, speak-, as-, slow-, ly-, as-, pos-, si-, ble-, and-, I-, can- , speak-, it-, al-, so-, if-, you-, will-, per-, mit-,me-, to-, speak-, like-, this."

We got on splendidly at once. He was simpaticissimo. I showed my passport: said that I was an English writer who preferred to live and write on the lagoon for the sake of health and solitude, and that I had acci dentally made a pair of small discoveries which (thought Ongania) might be useful to the official hydrogra phers. And I displayed my chart, indicating in pencil the situations of the unmarked island and canal.

The Commandant sent for his Department's copy of the chart. To our amusement it turned out to be an even earlier edition than mine - the edition of 1903, I think. We exchanged the usual polite commisera tions on the abominable way in which all departments of all governments always neglect each other, and then he carefully traced my amateur pencil-marks from my chart, for professional transference to his, and assured me that the Hydrographic Ship should be sent to verify and measure and sound and survey, so that the next issue of the chart might be brought thoroughly up to date.

" But be pleased to tell me, sir," he said, in his slow, sure English, " how did you form so clear an opin ion of the depth and width and length of this canal? "

At this I laughed, and confessed my diving propensities and my performances with the long oar of my puppa. Then we shared compliments and parted. I must say that the manners of all Italian officials known to me are quite delightful. They are keen and business like; but they are charmingly courteous and human withal. They do not shunt or snub you, but take a really pleasing personal interest in you. I remember a Quaestor (before whom I once had to testify concerning a doubtful young person, thrown in my way by the Erastian Thiasarkh of Venice) who came down precipitately from his own bench, when he heard that litera ture was my profession, to beg for the pleasure of shaking my hand, on the ground that his much respected father (Poareto! R.I.P.) had also been a man of letters.

It rained that night. The glass in Saint Mark's Square went down; and the observatory of the Patriarchal Seminary predicted a few days' inclemency. So I gave my gondoglieri a "festive repose," and shut myself up at home, to go on with my disgusting job of planting and watering (like Paul and Apollos) for somebody else to reap.

Two mornings later I got a note from Commandant Francon, asking me to do him the gentility of receiving him that evening at 18 o'clock. I replied that I should be most happy; and prayed him to stay and dine at 19.30. He answered with a second note, begging for reception at 18, and regretting inability to dine. I moaned, but assented.

He arrived punctually. His uniform was most careful and aesthetic, his salutation magnificent. His man ner was as calm and weighty and trustworthy as at our first meeting, but it had also a certain authority, a certain formality. He said that his happy mission was to convey to me the thanks of the Vice-Admiral commanding the Port for the information which I had so obligingly brought to the Hydrographic Depart ment of the Arsenal. I simpered.

Then he moved to the chair which I was offering him, sat down affably, and drew off his lovely white gloves, and every single scrap of formality with them. I seated myself near him, and protruded cigarettes. "I must ask you to pardon me, dear sir," he said, still gravely, "for not accepting your genteel invitation to dinner. And I pray you to believe what I am about to tell you. May I hope that you will favour me with this gentility? "

I said that, like Saint Anselm of England, it was my habit to believe, simply in order that I might understand. " Credo ut intelligam." It was the best way known to me of sparing myself unnecessary intellectual obfuscation.

" Then, dear sir," he continued, " you will know that it is not suitable to mingle duty with pleasure. My mission was official, if you permit me to say so."

I permitted.

" But, apart from that, though I do not look like a sick man, I am but just recovered from a putrid mal ady; and I assure you that it is a fact that my doctors force me to a diet which precludes me from ever eating with other people, and deprives me altogether of my dinner."

I condoled.

Here the last trace of his gravity also became wiped out. His dismissal, first of his official authority, and now of his by no means unbecoming seriousness, had precisely the effect of taking off his tunic and collar with the notion of spending an easy evening with me in his shirt-sleeves. I also hastened to divest my man ner of any frills which might by chance be still embellishing it.

"And now, dear thou," he surprisingly went on, " I have something else to say which is not official and not polite. It is not Commandant Francon who speaks to thee now. It is not even that poor convalescent imploring pardon for refusing to eat thy tasty dinner. But I am going to say something to thee, not as an Italian to an English who is so genteel as to listen to him, not as between foreigners, but as between two men of the world who are very great friends. Thou understandest? Thou dost permit it? Dear thou, thy friend, not Commandant Francon, but thy friend here, says then to thee, not officially, but privately, and in the very purest friendship, 'Dear friend, please do not measure any more of our canals, because it would give me such a pain if thou wert to get thyself into trouble'."

"But" (with a bounce)" have I been putting myself in contravention? Of course you know that I have no intention of an evil kind. Besides, dear friend, we English are the best friends of you Italians, though you have chosen to ally yourselves with dyspathetic Germans. Certainly, I myself am. And, when I make discov eries - and an observant man of my species cannot help making discoveries, - naturally I make a present of them to you. That is your right." Thus I, excited, but tickled.

"Dearest of loyal friends, I know it all, "continued the Commandant. "I am not saying any ugly word like 'contravention.' But all the lagoon is under military jurisdiction. Thou knowest it? And thou knowest why? The Trentino? Vereto Giulia? Ours, by Bacchus! Isn't it true? Thy sympathy is with us? Ah, thou art truly an English! Well, dear friend, in out of the way parts of the lagoon, which thy singular eminent genius leads thee to admire and to frequent, thou mightst be interrupted in measuring canals, and molested, and misunderstood, by countrified but zealous guards. And conceive how grieved thy friend would be on hear ing that thou hadst been forced so to incommode thyself as to have to come specially to Venice to furnish stupid officials with explanations. It is not for me to say how grieved the Vice-Admiral would be. It is enough that I, thy friend, would be grieved extremely, chagrined, desolated, to think that thou shouldst find thyself in so displeasing and so pietose a situation. Dear friend, then, send me away with a soul secure against such grief. Tell me that thou wilt not annoy thyself by being caught measuring our canals."

I burst into inextinguishable laughter as we both stood up. "Oh, I think you are the most charming and the most exquisite people in the world. I am a bit of a Machiavelli myself, and I am so glad that I' m friendly with you," I exclaimed. "Pray, valiant Commandant, convey my respectful thanks to the Vice Admiral for his altogether undeserved recognition of me. And pray, dear friend, accept also my most sincere thanks for the delicate courtesy of your warning. I promise not to mesure any more of your canals, ex cepting to assure myself that I shall not imbed my head in mud when diving. Will that satisfy you? "

"Admirably! " declared Commandant Francon.

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