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If a Woman has any Mind to be wicked, Venice seems to be the last Place in the World to give her better Sentiments.
'Miss N', to the actor Thomas Hull, 1756
Most English gentlemen came to Venice to be amused, whether to view the antique paintings, or to wear a long-nosed mask and dance at the carnival, or to dally with a courtesan in a closed gondola. But Richard Farren, the fifth Duke of Aston, wasn't here for idle amusement. He had come to Venice for one reason, and one reason only. He'd come for the sake of love.
Turning the collar of his heavy Melton travelling cloak higher against the wind, Richard smiled as he imagined again what his friends in London must be saying of him now. That he was a sentimental fool, surely. That he'd lost his wits, most likely. That the love he was travelling so far to offer would never be returned in equal measureah, there were doubtless a good many wagers being made about that, too. So be it. He'd only been able to tolerate a couple of months of loneliness at Aston Hall before he'd given in, and taken off on this journey. But then, caution and care had never been his style, and he wasn't about to change now. Nothing ventured, nothing gainedthat seemed to him not so much a time-worn adage as a good, sound philosophy.
He leaned his arms on the rail of the little sloop, staring out at the wavering dark outline of the shore. This passage from Trieste to Venice was the last step of his long journey, and he'd stood there much of the day, preferring the damp and chill on the deck to the close, fishy stench of the cabin below. Besides, he'd doubted he'd have been able to sleep even if he'd tried. After so many weeks travelling by land and sea, and hard travelling at that, his destination was now only hours away. By nightfall, all his doubts, all his worries, would at last be put to restor, if Fate went against him, they'd only have begun.
'His Grace is eager to reach Venice.' The sloop's captain joined him unbidden at the rail. 'His Grace is happy we make such good speed, yes?'
'Yes,' Richard said, hoping that brevity would make the man leave him in peace.
But the captain only squinted up at Richard, pushing his greasy cocked hat more firmly on his head against the wind. 'His Grace is brave to sail in winter, yes? Ice, snow, wind, brr.'
The captain hugged his arms over his chest to mimic a man warming himself. In return Richard only nodded. He knew perfectly well the perils of travelling at this time of year. He had embarked from England so late in the season, almost in winter itself, that crossing the Continent to Italy through France and the Alps was out of the question.
He'd had no choice but to travel by sea, around Spain and Portugal and into the Mediterranean, until he'd become heartily sick of the company of sailing men like this one.
'Once you're at Venice, your Grace, you stay,' the captain continued. 'No more journey until spring. No Roma, no Napoli, no Firenze, no'
'Quite,' Richard said, his impatience with the man's company growing by the second. He didn't need a list of every landmark city in Italy to know that he'd be winter-bound in Venice. He was rather counting on it, in fact, given the pleasing female company that was waiting for him there.
'But his Grace will find willing friends in Venice to warm him, eh?' The captain winked slyly, studying Richard from his thick dark gold hair to the toes of his well-polished boots with obvious approval. 'A great English lion like his Grace will have many ladies, eh?'
Richard said nothing, choosing instead to stare out at the water and let the rascal draw whatever unsavoury conclusions he pleased. His dear wife Anne had been not only his duchess, but his best friend and his dearest love, and when she had died, he'd sworn no other woman could possibly replace her in his life. That had been fifteen long years ago, and the pain lingered still.
'I can tell you the house of the best courtesans in the city, your Grace,' the captain was saying. 'I know what you English lords like, eh? A woman who will bring you to such joy, such passion, such'
'Enough,' Richard said curtly, the voice he always used with recalcitrant servants, dogs and children. Why did everyone on the Continent believe English peers were in constant rut, panting after low women in every port? 'Leave me.'
The captain hesitated only a moment before bowing and backing away, and, with a grumbling sigh, Richard turned back towards the horizon. The sloop was drawing closer to the harbour now, the outlines of the city's skyline sharpening in the fading light of day. Richard could make out the famous pointed bell tower of San Marco's, looking precisely the way it did in the engravings in the books in his library at Aston Hall. There was much else beginning to appear from the misty dusk, of course, places Richard supposed he should have recognised as well, but his mind was too occupied with the coming reunion to concentrate on anything else.
He remained on the deck against the urging of his manservant to come below to ready himself for shore, and he ignored the same suggestion from the captain as the crew finally dropped their anchor. Soon he'd be hearing the merry laughter that meant the world to him, and feel the soft girlish arms flung around his shoulders in the embrace he'd missed so sorely these last months.
As the sloop entered the harbour proper, a flurry of small boats came through the mist towards them, odd long skiffs that reminded Richard more of the punts at Oxford than the usual longboats, with the oarsman standing high in the stern-sheetsor what would be the stern-sheets in an English boat. Foreigners had a different name for everything.
'What are those skiffs, Potter?' he asked his secretary as the man joined him at the rail.
'Gondolas, your Grace,' said Potter, supplying the proper word in his usual helpful manner. Like some small, bustling, black-clad badger, the secretary had ducked from the path of the sailors to join Richard, while the rest of the English party, Richard's manservant and two footmen, saw to his belongings below. 'Gondolas are the common means of travel throughout Venice, rather like hackneys in London.'
'Then pray hail one for us directly,' Richard said. 'The sooner we're off this infernal sloop and on dry land again, the better.'
At once Potter nodded, bowing over his clasped hands. 'I am sorry, your Grace, but before we can venture into the city, we must clear customs.'
'Customs?' Blast, he'd forgotten that every last city and village in Italy considered itself its own little country, complete with a flock of fawning satraps who expected to have their palms greased. 'Customs.'
'I fear so, your Grace,' Potter said. 'That building on the promontory is the Dognana di Mare, the Customs House of Venice, your Grace, where we must go'
'Where you must go, Potter,' Richard said. 'You see to whatever needs seeing to, and pay whatever fees the thieving devils demand. I'll proceed directly to the ladies.'
Potter's expression grew pinched. 'Forgive me, your Grace, but surely you must realise that the customs officers will expect you'
'They can expect whatever they please,' Richard said, 'I've more important business this night than to bow and scrape to their wishes. They may call on me tomorrow, at a civil hour, at thethe, ah, what the devil is the place called?'
'The Ca' Battista, your Grace,' Potter said. 'But if you please, your Grace, we'
'Ca' Battista,' Richard repeated the house's name to make sure he'd recall it, and nodded with satisfaction. Though he'd no notion what the words meant, they had a fine, righteous sound to them. 'Tell the drones in the Customs House to come to me there.'
'I beg your pardon, your Grace,' Potter persisted, 'but Venice has a very poor reputation in its treatment of English visitors. Venice is a republic, and their officials have little respect for foreign persons of rank, such as yourself. It can be a place full of danger, your Grace. This city is not London, and'
'But I am not a foreigner,' Richard said. 'I am an English peer. Now a boat, Potter, one of your gondolas, at once. At once!'
Soon after Richard was, in fact, in a gondola, seated on a low bench against leather cushions, his long legs bent at an ungainly angle before him. Yet he couldn't deny the swift efficiency of this peculiar vessel as it glided into one of the channels, or canals, that divided the city and served as a type of watery streets. On this evening, the canal seemed muffled in mist and fog and the endless lapping of the wavelets against the buildings, with the striped poles used for mooring like so many drunken demons lurching through the waters.
Without a city's usual bustle and clatter from horses, carriages and wagons, the canals seemed oddly quiet, so quiet that to Richard the loudest sound must surely be the racing of his own heart. His long journey, and his waiting, was nearly done.
'Ca' Battista, signori,' the oarsman announced as the gondola slowed before one of the grandest of the houses: a tall square front of white stone, punctuated with balconies and pointed windows frosted with elaborate carvings, which sat so low on the dark water that it seemed to float upon it. The gondolier guided the boat in place before the house's landing, bumping lightly against the dock. Roused by the noise, a sleepy-eyed porter opened the house's door and held up a lantern to peer down from the stone steps.
'Stop gaping, man,' Potter shouted as Richard clambered from the gondola. 'Go to your mistress and tell her that the Duke of Aston is here.'
Still the servant hesitated, his face full of bewilderment. With an oath of impatience, Richard swept past him and through the open door, his long cloak swinging from his shoulders. The entry hall was a hexagon, supported by more of the tall columns and pointed arches. A pair of gilded cherubs crowned the newels at the base of the staircase, the steep steps rising up into the murky gloom. The floor was tiled, the walls painted with faded pictures, with everything dismally half-lit by a single hanging lantern. There were no other servants to be seen besides the single hapless porter; in fact, Richard had no company at all except his own echoing footsteps.
He swore to himself with furious disappointment. He was angry and tired and cold, but most of all, if he were truthful, he was wounded to the quick. This was hardly the welcome he'd expected. Where were the kisses and tears of joy? Hadn't the landlady received his letters? Why the devil weren't they prepared for him? Blast the infernal Italian post! He knew he'd gambled by coming all this way on impulse, but damnation, he'd paid for the lease of this wretched, echoing house. Wasn't that enough to earn him at least a show of affection in return?
'The English lady, most excellent one?' the porter asked breathlessly as he finally trotted up behind Richard. 'You wish to see her?'
'Who the devil else would it be?' At least the man had worked out that much. In fact, Richard was here to see two English ladies, not just one, but he'd credit the mistake to the porter's general confusion. 'Go, tell her I'm'
'A thousand pardons, but she waits for you.' He pointed behind Richard. 'There.'
Richard whipped around, gazing to where the man was pointing. At the top of the stairs stood a woman, indeed, an Englishwoman, but neither of the ones he'd so longed to see. She was small and pale, her eyes enormous with shock in her round little face. Her hair was drawn back severely from her face and hidden beneath a linen cap, relieved only by a narrow brown ribbon that matched the colour of her equally plain brown gown. She clutched at the rail, clearly needing its support as she struggled to regain her composure after the shock of seeing Richard.
'Youryour Grace,' she said, and belatedly curtsied. 'Good evening, your Grace. Youyou took me by surprise.'
'Evidently,' he said, his voice rough with urgency. 'I'm tired, Miss Wood, and eager to see my girls. Please take me to them directly.'
'Lady Mary, Your Grace?' she asked with a hesitation that did not please him, not from the woman he'd trusted as his daughters' governess. 'And Lady Diana?'
'My daughters,' he said, taking another step towards her. His daughters, his girls, his cherubs, the darlings of his heartwho else could have made him come so far? Solemn, dark-haired Mary, the older at nineteen, and Diana, laughing and golden, a year younger. Could any father have missed his children more than he?
A second woman came to join the governess, dark and elegant, a lady dressed in widow's black. Most likely this was the house's owner, he guessed, their landlady Signora della Battista.
'My journey has been a long one, Miss Wood,' he said, 'and you are making it longer still.'
'Your daughters,' the governess repeated with undeniable sadness, even regret. The older woman spoke gently to her in Italian, resting her hand on her arm, but Miss Wood only shook her head, her gaze still turned towards Richard. 'You did not receive my letters, your Grace, or theirs? You do not know what has happened?'
'What is there to know?' he demanded. 'I've been at sea, coming here. The last letters I had from you were from Paris, weeks ago, and nothing since. Damnation, if you don't bring my girls to me'
'If it were in my power, your Grace, I would, with all my heart.' With her hand once again on the rail, she slowly sank until she was sitting on the top step, so overwhelmed that she seemed unable to stand any longer. 'But theythe young ladiesthey are not here. Oh, if only you'd been able to read the letters!'
A score of possibilities filled Richard's heart with sickening dread: an accident in a coach, a shipboard mishap, an attack by footpads or highwaymen, a fever, a quinsy, a poison in the blood. Long ago he'd lost his wife, and grief had nearly killed him. He could not bear to lose his daughters as well.
'Tell me, Miss Wood,' he asked hoarsely. 'Dear God, if anything has happened to them'
'They are married, your Grace,' the governess said, and bowed her head. 'Both of them. They are married.'