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IMAGINE HIM NOW: thirty-eight years of age, big chin, big
nose, big eyes in a face of `African tint', a guardsman's brawny
chest and shoulders, stepping down the gangplank in Dover
harbour behind the Duke of Bedford, with whom, after a
gentlemanly wrangle, he had shared the expense of the voyage
from Calais, each of them paying three guineas to the
captain of the brig. Servants lugged the men's cases, stacking
them on the quayside.
`England indeed, monsieur,' replied the duke in the faultless
French one would have expected from the British envoy
to Fontainebleau. `And may your stay here prove to be an interesting
They stood a moment, settling themselves on terra firma,
recovering their land-legs, inhaling a breeze of salt and
caulking tar and fish guts. A half-naked boy, holding his
mongrel by its scruff, stared at them--their stiff coats, tight
gloves, their sword hilts glittering in the sunshine--as if
they had been lowered out of a cloud on creaking ropes like
the heroes of a village pantomime. Casanova stared back; the
insolence of wealth at the insolence of poverty. Such children
were everywhere, of course, a kind of transient human
trash, yet he could never look at them without seeing himself,
half-witted son of the dancer Zanetta, running through the
calli, gaping at red-cloaked senators, at gilded foreigners, at
ladies tottering in their jewelled dogs. From his pocket he
took a small coin, a scrap of silver, and balancing it on his
thumbnail he flicked it to the child. The coin bounced on
the cobbles and rolled into a puddle of yesterday's rain. The
boy, still staring at the men, felt for it with his fingertips.
Casanova turned away. He was determined to have no unpleasant
thoughts for as long as he was able.
In the customs house he gave his name as de Seingalt, the
Chevalier de Seingalt, a citizen of France. Lies, of course, or
something like them, but it pleased him to dream up names
for himself; it was also politic. Europe--the parts of it that
counted--was a small place, and in his travels he had met at
least half the people of influence in the entire continent.
`Casanova' was in too many documents, too many secret reports
and in the minds of too many people he would rather
not encounter again. As for his being a French citizen, well,
he was, in the loosest sense, in the employ of a minister of
Louis XV who, during a supper of buttered lobsters and
wild doves on a puree of cooked artichoke hearts, had desired
Casanova to learn what he could about the English
which might be of use to a foreign power--shipping, scandals,
disaffected Tories. And since, in addition to this, he was
in permanent exile from the Venetian state for corrupting
the youth of the Republic; for preferring the playwright
Zorzi to Abbe Chiaria in a year when the Red Inquisitor was
head of the Chiaria faction; for freemasonry and cabbalism
and driving the Countess Lorenza Maddalena Bonafede mad,
the description was not, perhaps, without some slender basis
in fact. These days everyone was reinventing himself. It was
With a moist flourish of the pen he signed `Seingalt' in
the Register of Aliens. The official blotted the ink with sand,
leaned back in his chair and smiled, coldly.
`It is just,' he said, `a formality, monsieur. You are free to
The Duke's machine was waiting in the street outside the
customs house. Casanova, having arranged for his numerous
packing cases to follow on the first available wagon, accepted
the Duke's offer of a lift into London. It was warmer now.
They took off their coats and opened the tops of the windows,
just an inch or two or the dust from the road would
choke them. His Grace, a very orderly sort of man whom
Casanova had never surprised in the Allee des Soupirs at the
Palais Royal or in any other of the notorious walks of that
notorious area, immediately began a history of the County
of Kent from Earliest Times until the Present Day, but
Casanova, though nodding his head and occasionally exclaiming
politely, heard no more than a few words. He was
looking out at the green whorls of English fields and English
woods, at the enchanting chalky blue of the English sky, and
wondering if this tilled and agreeable little country might
not be just the place for a man to revive himself, to shake off
those morbid dawn vigils, those nights when it seemed some
demonic lapdog crouched on his chest, panting into his face;
those lugubrious moods that had troubled him ever since
Munich like a cough one could never quite be rid of ...
Munich! Where every card had been a losing card and that
little dancer, La Renaud, had stolen his clothes and his jewels
and infected him with a vile disease. Exquisite pain. A fever
that had made him roar like a lunatic in a thunderstorm. And
what the disease had started the doctors almost finished with
their Latin, their drunkenness, their dirty knives. In the end he
had saved himself with a strict regimen of milk and water and
barley soup. Two and a half months of it. Double vision,
tooth-rot. The most terrifying exudations.
In time the wasted muscles had recovered. Walnuts
cracked once more between his fingers, and to the casual
glance he did not look much altered by the experience. And
yet, he wondered, what was the true cost of such a battle?
What percentage of a man's deep reserves were consumed by
it? It felt sometimes as if the world had dosed in on him, the
horizon tightening like a tourniquet. He needed peace, a
span of quietude in which to find himself again; serenity. I
am, he told himself for the third or fourth time that day, in
the prime of my life. He found it strange, however, disquieting,
that he should need to remind himself of this as often
as he did.
They arrived in the West End of London at dusk, parted
with expressions of mutual esteem, and as the Duke's carriage
glided away into the evening the Chevalier was seized
with that delicious vertigo which always followed upon arrival
in a strange city with his purse full of gold, that sense of
being softly pressed upon by a mysterious abundance. On the
subject of cities he considered himself the expert--he who
had seen so many--and claimed he could tell everything
simply from the pace at which the people walked, the condition
of their animals, the number and behaviour of their
beggars, the various stinks that constituted the particular and
distinctive air of the place, like the nose of a wine or the intimate
whiff of a petticoat. London, filtered through the fine
inner reticulum of his head, had a smell of damp mortar, of
mud, roses, brewer's mash. Of coal-smoke and pastry and
In Soho Square he lounged under the windows of the
Venetian residency, long enough--so he hoped--for Zuccato,
the Resident, looking down at the traffic of the square,
to notice him, alive and tolerably well in London, indifferent
to the censure of that distant and longed-for republic.
He puffed out his chest and strolled through the gardens
in the centre of the square towards the house opposite. He
was calling on an old friend, one with whom, somewhere in
the past and under other skies, he had spent some passionate
hours: Madame Cornelys--also known as de Trenti and as
Rigerboos--widow of the dancer Pompeati, the same Pompeati
who had destroyed himself in Venice by ripping up his
stomach with a razor.
She received him in the drawing room on the first floor.
The lamps had not yet been lit and Casanova could not tell,
not until he was close enough to bow over her hand, how
kindly or otherwise the years had treated her. She wore a
gown and underskirt of dark and lighter blues and on her
face a little paint, a little powder. She was still as thin as she
had ever been, thin as a boy, but a boy now whose body had
been hardened in the kiln of hard living.
They complimented each other. Each remarked how the
other had not changed at all. The years had simply passed
them by! How young she looked. How well he seemed, and
prosperous too. They laughed. She said the darkness flattered
her. Her gaze mirrored his: between them, the reflex of concealment
was pointless. Whatever would not be said--and
much would not be said--there could be no important
They walked, arm in arm, and stood at one of the tall
windows overlooking the square. With etiquette satisfied
they began to speak of old acquaintances, of Marcello and
Italo, of Frederic and Francois-Marie and Fyodor Mikhailovich.
A sombre roll-call of names, of briefly conjured
faces, for too many had already fallen victim to the riptides
of disaster: sputtering, clutching their throats, their hearts,
bleeding in a park at dawn or cleaning a pistol with the barrel
in their mouths. Fleetingly, in the guise of melancholy,
their old intimacy surfaced. The evening seemed to pull at
them, to seduce them with the onset of night. They fell
silent. For two or three minutes, as they watched the light receding
over the London rooftops, a golden shawl dragged
over church spires and chimney pots and patterned by the
flight of small birds, the Chevalier entertained the idea of
embracing her, of carrying her to the lit de jour behind them
for the brief consolation of pleasure, the copulatory anodyne.
Then clocks chimed and servants came in with lights.
The couple at the window stood apart.
She made her money now by throwing parties for the
Quality. One great dinner a month for which a two-guinea
ticket must be bought in advance. She led him to the banqueting
hall, holding up a candelabra to show the expanse of
polished table where five hundred guests could all sit down
together. She said there was not another like it in the city.
`You must be doing well for yourself, my dear Teresa.'
`I should be,' she answered, looking at him through the
candle-tips, `but everybody robs me. The workmen, the
traders, the servants. My receipts last year amounted to
twenty-four thousand pounds but I have hardly a penny for
myself. What I need'--she turned away--`is a sharp man to
look after my interests.'
Casanova looked the length of the hall. This was his first
offer in London and not one to despise, yet he knew immediately
that he would not, could not, accept. Her luck was
out; he could smell it on her breath. Her gratitude would be
of the poisonous variety and in the end he too would cheat
her. La Cornelys and her parties--the vileness of which he
could readily imagine--were precisely what he had not come
to London for.
`I am sure you will find such a man,' he said.
`No doubt,' she answered, as though drawing the nib of
her pen through his name, dismissing him.
In the drawing room, where coffee was served in the
French manner, Casanova was introduced to Cornelys'
daughter. Her name was Sophie, and a quick subtraction of
the years--a calculation he had performed on many occasions--showed
that he himself might be the girl's author,
that a line could be traced from the creaking bed, the shout,
the last careless thrust, to this cool-eyed child in her cap and
gown. She spoke well in both English and French. She played
the piano. She sang. She danced. She was ten years old. He
danced with her then covered her face with kisses. It was a
wise father who knew his own child. Her skin was as delicate
as honeysuckle, and when she stood before his chair they
stared into each other's eyes as though trying to see themselves.
She would, of course, never know all her brothers and
sisters. Most he did not know himself, but he had reached
the age where on the main streets of any town from Bruges
to Famagusta he imagined that he saw them, casting flirtatious
glances at him, smiling at him with his own lips. It
should perhaps have reassured him but it made him feel diluted,
It was the eleventh day of June 1763.
FOR A FORTNIGHT he lived beneath Cornelys' roof, then,
no longer able to ignore her reproachful stares, her prattle
about the servants, the fear on her skin when she left the
house in case she should be seized by her creditors, Casanova
rented a residence of his own in Pall Mall at twenty
guineas a month. The house had four floors, each with
two rooms and a closet. Everything was scrubbed, folded,
ready to be lived in. There were carpets, mirrors, china services,
a set of silver plate, an excellent kitchen and plenty of
good linen. To the rear of the house was a little garden with
a brick privy and a pond where a stone Cupid gazed at the
He was assisted in his negotiations by a Signor Martinelli
whom he had uncovered at the Orange Coffee House opposite
the Haymarket Theatre, a resort for rascally Italians
where Martinelli, sitting by the window oblivious to the
gangs of vongole, sellers, disgraced confidenti and professional
husbands, had been correcting a manuscript as though he
were in the library at Padua University. For fifteen years he
had lived among the English like a learned bedbug, a man
full of quiet industry who had, it seemed, weathered the
storms of his life and achieved at last that tranquillity
Casanova longed for. His latest venture was a new translation
of the Decameron for which subscription tickets were a guinea
each. Casanova bought a dozen. He had a reverence for writers
which he could never quite overcome.
When they had settled business at the house, Martinelli
guided the Chevalier across the town to the Royal Exchange
on Cheapside. Here, among the hustle, the polyglot babble,
the quick clasp of hands, the shaking heads, the clink and
sniff of business, the eyes that settled on one's apparel, one's
company, measuring, assessing, marking down in the ledgers
of memory one's particular face and estimated fiscal mass,
Casanova acquired a servant, a young educated black man
with shrewd polite eyes, a forehead of licked coal, a slender,
somewhat female presence in a suit of brown fustian and a
scarf, a crimson scarf, like a flame at his throat.
`I am called Jarba.'
`You speak Italian?'
`When I was a boy, signore, I lived in the house of an olive
merchant in Palermo.'
`And the French tongue?'
`Yes, monsieur. In Bordeaux I was for five years footman to
the wife of a lawyer.'
`No doubt you also speak good English.'
`Indeed, sir, I do, for I served as valet to an English sea
captain and went to sea with him and every night read to him
from his Bible.'
`What became of your sea captain, Jarba?'
`In his bed?'
`Then I should like to hear the circumstances.'
`We were bound for the Guinea Coast, monsieur, with a
cargo of glass and brass wire and cloth. Storms blew us far
into the west and then the winds deserted us and we drifted
for many days. There was sickness. The men were too weak
to pull the ship from the boats. We shot cannon to wake the
wind and my master prayed in his cabin but the wind did not
come back. Some said it was because our trade was evil.
Some said the captain was cursed. There were strange lights,
monsieur. The sailors saw sea beasts with human faces and
ghost ships with crews of weeping men. One morning when
the sea was like oil the captain called me to his cabin. He
blessed me, gave me his spyglass to remember him, then went
on to the deck, climbed the rail and dived into the sea. He
did not come to the surface again.'
`You tried to stop him?'
`He did not wish us to stop him.'
`He was insane?'
`What age was this unfortunate man?'
`Of about the same age as Monsieur.'
Jarba was hired and found for his new employer a French
cook who was stood in the atomic bustle of the crowd with
his pans and ladles, claiming, for anyone who would hear it,
that he had once cooked a chicken fricassee for the Queen of
Now, considered Casanova, travelling home behind the
damask curtain of a sedan chair, the house keys in his pocket,
I have burrowed into the city. I can live and dine like a gentleman.
Everything is good. The world is good. He wished
however that he could somehow unremember Jarba's captain,
for he was afraid that he would dream of him, of his long
swim to the floor of the ocean. He was afraid that he would
begin to admire him.