…And there is this little passage which I am very fond of and which is oddly independent of everything else, though actually it is there to sell quite an important plot point not only for the section it is in, but for the whole of the book. A plot point sufficiently important that I cheated a little bit and on discovering that Edward Gibbon died in January 1794 when I needed him around in June, made him a ghost, haunting his Lausanne house and endlessly checking the footnotes of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
New readers need to know that my narrator, Mara, is several thousand years old and wanders the world killing gods and magicians whose powers derive from mass murder – slightly amoral and mildly nuts…
‘I have a story to tell. Of which I was too ashamed to speak in my Autobiography, but which may answer this case, and I will speak of it in your need.’
I have noticed that on occasion, ghosts that speak of their own past will lose the semblance in which they most appear and adopt that of some other age of their life, and so it was with him, as he talked. For long moments, I would find myself not looking at the elderly man with his swollen groin, but at the young dandy he had been on his Grand Tour, before he watched goat-herds lead their flocks through the ruined Forum of the eternal city and found his vocation.
He had been thin once, and, though small, almost dapper, with excessive lace around his neck and fine ankles for a man, and the sort of carved mahogany cane that was briefly an essential part of a young man’s equipment. He had a sword in an impractican scabbard at his belt and pockets for watch and snuffbox; he was quite the thing, and looked entirely insufferable.
‘I don’t know, Huntress’ he said,’ whether you have ever been in Venice for the Carnival?’
‘Once or twice,’ I said. ‘In the line of duty. Demons and sorcerers and necromancers always think that they can pass un-noticed in a crowd of people in masks throwing streamers and coloured powder at each other. They are, in general, mistaken in that belief; it’s something stiff and preoccupied in their merry-making.’
‘So you know,’ he went on, ‘ how the streets are suddenly full of people singing ridiculous songs and swilling red wine from leather bottles that squirt in your face and ruin your linen if you do not know precisely how to hold them, and strangers playing lovesongs on mandolins underneath your balcony at the oddest hours, and eating spiced chicken legs someone threw you from a passing gondola or a sausage that fell on your head as men with swords chased each other across the rooftops.’
‘I have no particular gift for that sort of pleasure, as it turned out,’ he said. ‘But I was young and it was nothing like Hampshire. And then there were the women…I did not know, before Venice, that lechery was a pleasure in itself, whether or not it led to actual fornication.’
He shook his head in a mixture of repentance and sensual joy.
‘That was the thing,’ he said. ‘You had no way of knowing. That nun in a purple habit split to her thigh – she might be a whore whose bravos would steal your purse or she might be the daughter of a noble who could have you drowned in a sack if you looked at her the wrong way. She might even be a boy – the Venetians are lax in such matters.’
‘I did not know which frightened me more – losing my gold, or losing my life, or catching the pox, or commiting sodomy under misapprehension. So I danced with the revellers and drank their wine and helped throw their streamers and powders, and I thought I could observe and only enjoy the sight of such things and then, then I saw her.’
‘Her?’ I asked, as one is meant to.
‘I heard her first,’ he said. ‘It was a high laugh, but one that had a richness from notes deep in the throat. I thought at first that she was one of the castrates that sing there in the opera house, for their voices have that mixture of silk and steel, of pleasure and regret, but then I saw her and knew that any lust I had thought to feel for girls in the street, or whores in bordellos, was but a shadow.’
‘She was dressed in a way I thought illegal even at Carnival,’ he went on,’ one shoulder quite bare and one breast barely covered. No boy and no eunuch, then…And a half-mask loosely held in front of her and dark eyes gazing intently across the square at me behind it. Her free hand pointed at me, and then beckoned. I shuddered in a fear I did not understand and I obeyed as one who had no choice..’
‘”Young man,”‘ she said and I stared at her like the fox at the hounds that will tear it. “Dumb, then,” she said. “I had hoped for perfection in you.”
‘”My lady,” I said, “Dumb in truth, but only struck so by your beauty” for I had studied books of compliments before making my Tour in the hope of the encounters boys talk of late at night in their last days at school.’
‘”A stranger here,” she said, “as am I”‘
‘”I am English,”‘ I said,'” a gentleman who hopes one day to be a scholar.”‘
‘”Ah,”‘ she said, ‘”it is a long time since I had an English boy at my side, and longer since I visited your land. You would not believe how long. And a scholar, you say,” and she reached out her hand and ran it across my shaven chin and up the right cheek to tug gently at the underside of the long-nosed mask I wore, as one who revels with revellers must, ” I know many things, and I will take good care of your education.”‘
‘I thought her some courtesan, but the sort of woman kept only by the richest and most wellbred of men, and my only concern was not that I lose my purse, but that it not contain enough to buy that for which I would have, at that moment, traded everything I owned.’
‘My gaze was still fixed on her eyes, and her mouth, and I did not look away or reach inside my coat to count the coins I had with me for incidental expenses, but she laughed at me in a way that contained both scorn and tolerance.’
‘”Emperors,”‘ she said,'”have offered whole cities of loot for what you will receive gratis, this night, and been refused. I am not a whore, little boy, but Woman, and this night, you please my whim.” and she took me firmly by the shoulder, so firmly that I doubted her sex again for a second and pulled me towards the canal, and a single black gondola whose steersman was dressed in deep dark scarlet with a black leather mask whose nose was a phallus as long and as hard as mine felt at that moment.’
‘Her mouth was upon mine as she drew me down into the cushions of the boat and her hand upon me. I had never understood before that moment that a woman can take a man as thoroughly as any rake a serving wench, and leave him without will or any say in the matter. I was raptured and ravished, and felt neither ashamed nor unmanned, whatever I have felt about that night since in the ashen and guilty watches of early dawn.’
‘Suddenly we were from the boat, so sudden that I remember no climb to a pier and it is as if we had flown from cushion into the entrance hall of some palazzo, a hall swathed in green brocade, or perhaps in marble carved and painted to resemble cloth, as is the Venetian taste in such matters, and we walked hand in hand through that hall and up the steps of a large staircase and I was so full of joy and pleasure that I thought I would spend at every step and then die of mortification at disappointing her, and at each step that thought held me off a little and so it built in me like a megrim or a hunger that needed to be satisfied, and then we were at the door of some inner chamber and she said “wait here a moment, sweet boy” and entered, and from behind the screen at the side of the vast bed therein I heard the rustle of her dress, and I placed my hand on the gold and glass handle of that chamber door to steady myself as I entered.’
‘And then,’ I asked him.
‘I remember nothing more,’ he said. ‘Just the words we spoke in that moment, and awakening with all my goods, and more coin than I had had before, in a carriage two days from Padua and heading towards Florence. And a heartache that has stayed with me ever since, and a sense of fulfilment that I never knew again until the first volume of my book was taken from the press and placed in my hands. That is the woman you need to find, because she is the mistress of delusion, deceit and memory,’
‘And what were the words you spoke?’ I asked him, fearing that I knew the answer.
‘I said to her,”You are my Fate”,’ he said,'”and she answered, and it is the last thing I remember of that night, “Ah no, sweet boy, I am your Morgana”‘