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Ch. 7 - An Italian Dream

I had been travelling, for some days; resting very little in the
night, and never in the day. The rapid and unbroken succession of
novelties that had passed before me, came back like half-formed
dreams; and a crowd of objects wandered in the greatest confusion
through my mind, as I travelled on, by a solitary road. At
intervals, some one among them would stop, as it were, in its
restless flitting to and fro, and enable me to look at it, quite
steadily, and behold it in full distinctness. After a few moments,
it would dissolve, like a view in a magic-lantern; and while I saw
some part of it quite plainly, and some faintly, and some not at
all, would show me another of the many places I had lately seen,
lingering behind it, and coming through it. This was no sooner
visible than, in its turn, it melted into something else.

At one moment, I was standing again, before the brown old rugged
churches of Modena. As I recognised the curious pillars with grim
monsters for their bases, I seemed to see them, standing by
themselves in the quiet square at Padua, where there were the staid
old University, and the figures, demurely gowned, grouped here and
there in the open space about it. Then, I was strolling in the
outskirts of that pleasant city, admiring the unusual neatness of
the dwelling-houses, gardens, and orchards, as I had seen them a
few hours before. In their stead arose, immediately, the two
towers of Bologna; and the most obstinate of all these objects,
failed to hold its ground, a minute, before the monstrous moated
castle of Ferrara, which, like an illustration to a wild romance,
came back again in the red sunrise, lording it over the solitary,
grass-grown, withered town. In short, I had that incoherent but
delightful jumble in my brain, which travellers are apt to have,
and are indolently willing to encourage. Every shake of the coach
in which I sat, half dozing in the dark, appeared to jerk some new
recollection out of its place, and to jerk some other new
recollection into it; and in this state I fell asleep.

I was awakened after some time (as I thought) by the stopping of
the coach. It was now quite night, and we were at the waterside.
There lay here, a black boat, with a little house or cabin in it of
the same mournful colour. When I had taken my seat in this, the
boat was paddled, by two men, towards a great light, lying in the
distance on the sea.

Ever and again, there was a dismal sigh of wind. It ruffled the
water, and rocked the boat, and sent the dark clouds flying before
the stars. I could not but think how strange it was, to be
floating away at that hour: leaving the land behind, and going on,
towards this light upon the sea. It soon began to burn brighter;
and from being one light became a cluster of tapers, twinkling and
shining out of the water, as the boat approached towards them by a
dreamy kind of track, marked out upon the sea by posts and piles.

We had floated on, five miles or so, over the dark water, when I
heard it rippling in my dream, against some obstruction near at
hand. Looking out attentively, I saw, through the gloom, a
something black and massive--like a shore, but lying close and flat
upon the water, like a raft--which we were gliding past. The chief
of the two rowers said it was a burial-place.

Full of the interest and wonder which a cemetery lying out there,
in the lonely sea, inspired, I turned to gaze upon it as it should
recede in our path, when it was quickly shut out from my view.
Before I knew by what, or how, I found that we were gliding up a
street--a phantom street; the houses rising on both sides, from the
water, and the black boat gliding on beneath their windows. Lights
were shining from some of these casements, plumbing the depth of
the black stream with their reflected rays, but all was profoundly
silent.

So we advanced into this ghostly city, continuing to hold our
course through narrow streets and lanes, all filled and flowing
with water. Some of the corners where our way branched off, were
so acute and narrow, that it seemed impossible for the long slender
boat to turn them; but the rowers, with a low melodious cry of
warning, sent it skimming on without a pause. Sometimes, the
rowers of another black boat like our own, echoed the cry, and
slackening their speed (as I thought we did ours) would come
flitting past us like a dark shadow. Other boats, of the same
sombre hue, were lying moored, I thought, to painted pillars, near
to dark mysterious doors that opened straight upon the water. Some
of these were empty; in some, the rowers lay asleep; towards one, I
saw some figures coming down a gloomy archway from the interior of
a palace: gaily dressed, and attended by torch-bearers. It was
but a glimpse I had of them; for a bridge, so low and close upon
the boat that it seemed ready to fall down and crush us: one of
the many bridges that perplexed the Dream: blotted them out,
instantly. On we went, floating towards the heart of this strange
place--with water all about us where never water was elsewhere--
clusters of houses, churches, heaps of stately buildings growing
out of it--and, everywhere, the same extraordinary silence.
Presently, we shot across a broad and open stream; and passing, as
I thought, before a spacious paved quay, where the bright lamps
with which it was illuminated showed long rows of arches and
pillars, of ponderous construction and great strength, but as light
to the eye as garlands of hoarfrost or gossamer--and where, for the
first time, I saw people walking--arrived at a flight of steps
leading from the water to a large mansion, where, having passed
through corridors and galleries innumerable, I lay down to rest;
listening to the black boats stealing up and down below the window
on the rippling water, till I fell asleep.

The glory of the day that broke upon me in this Dream; its
freshness, motion, buoyancy; its sparkles of the sun in water; its
clear blue sky and rustling air; no waking words can tell. But,
from my window, I looked down on boats and barks; on masts, sails,
cordage, flags; on groups of busy sailors, working at the cargoes
of these vessels; on wide quays, strewn with bales, casks,
merchandise of many kinds; on great ships, lying near at hand in
stately indolence; on islands, crowned with gorgeous domes and
turrets: and where golden crosses glittered in the light, atop of
wondrous churches, springing from the sea! Going down upon the
margin of the green sea, rolling on before the door, and filling
all the streets, I came upon a place of such surpassing beauty, and
such grandeur, that all the rest was poor and faded, in comparison
with its absorbing loveliness.

It was a great Piazza, as I thought; anchored, like all the rest,
in the deep ocean. On its broad bosom, was a Palace, more majestic
and magnificent in its old age, than all the buildings of the
earth, in the high prime and fulness of their youth. Cloisters and
galleries: so light, they might have been the work of fairy hands:
so strong that centuries had battered them in vain: wound round
and round this palace, and enfolded it with a Cathedral, gorgeous
in the wild luxuriant fancies of the East. At no great distance
from its porch, a lofty tower, standing by itself, and rearing its
proud head, alone, into the sky, looked out upon the Adriatic Sea.
Near to the margin of the stream, were two ill-omened pillars of
red granite; one having on its top, a figure with a sword and
shield; the other, a winged lion. Not far from these again, a
second tower: richest of the rich in all its decorations: even
here, where all was rich: sustained aloft, a great orb, gleaming
with gold and deepest blue: the Twelve Signs painted on it, and a
mimic sun revolving in its course around them: while above, two
bronze giants hammered out the hours upon a sounding bell. An
oblong square of lofty houses of the whitest stone, surrounded by a
light and beautiful arcade, formed part of this enchanted scene;
and, here and there, gay masts for flags rose, tapering, from the
pavement of the unsubstantial ground.

I thought I entered the Cathedral, and went in and out among its
many arches: traversing its whole extent. A grand and dreamy
structure, of immense proportions; golden with old mosaics;
redolent of perfumes; dim with the smoke of incense; costly in
treasure of precious stones and metals, glittering through iron
bars; holy with the bodies of deceased saints; rainbow-hued with
windows of stained glass; dark with carved woods and coloured
marbles; obscure in its vast heights, and lengthened distances;
shining with silver lamps and winking lights; unreal, fantastic,
solemn, inconceivable throughout. I thought I entered the old
palace; pacing silent galleries and council-chambers, where the old
rulers of this mistress of the waters looked sternly out, in
pictures, from the walls, and where her high-prowed galleys, still
victorious on canvas, fought and conquered as of old. I thought I
wandered through its halls of state and triumph--bare and empty
now!--and musing on its pride and might, extinct: for that was
past; all past: heard a voice say, 'Some tokens of its ancient
rule and some consoling reasons for its downfall, may be traced
here, yet!'

I dreamed that I was led on, then, into some jealous rooms,
communicating with a prison near the palace; separated from it by a
lofty bridge crossing a narrow street; and called, I dreamed, The
Bridge of Sighs.

But first I passed two jagged slits in a stone wall; the lions'
mouths--now toothless--where, in the distempered horror of my
sleep, I thought denunciations of innocent men to the old wicked
Council, had been dropped through, many a time, when the night was
dark. So, when I saw the council-room to which such prisoners were
taken for examination, and the door by which they passed out, when
they were condemned--a door that never closed upon a man with life
and hope before him--my heart appeared to die within me.

It was smitten harder though, when, torch in hand, I descended from
the cheerful day into two ranges, one below another, of dismal,
awful, horrible stone cells. They were quite dark. Each had a
loop-hole in its massive wall, where, in the old time, every day, a
torch was placed--I dreamed--to light the prisoner within, for half
an hour. The captives, by the glimmering of these brief rays, had
scratched and cut inscriptions in the blackened vaults. I saw
them. For their labour with a rusty nail's point, had outlived
their agony and them, through many generations.

One cell, I saw, in which no man remained for more than four-and-
twenty hours; being marked for dead before he entered it. Hard by,
another, and a dismal one, whereto, at midnight, the confessor
came--a monk brown-robed, and hooded--ghastly in the day, and free
bright air, but in the midnight of that murky prison, Hope's
extinguisher, and Murder's herald. I had my foot upon the spot,
where, at the same dread hour, the shriven prisoner was strangled;
and struck my hand upon the guilty door--low-browed and stealthy--
through which the lumpish sack was carried out into a boat, and
rowed away, and drowned where it was death to cast a net.

Around this dungeon stronghold, and above some part of it: licking
the rough walls without, and smearing them with damp and slime
within: stuffing dank weeds and refuse into chinks and crevices,
as if the very stones and bars had mouths to stop: furnishing a
smooth road for the removal of the bodies of the secret victims of
the State--a road so ready that it went along with them, and ran
before them, like a cruel officer--flowed the same water that
filled this Dream of mine, and made it seem one, even at the time.

Descending from the palace by a staircase, called, I thought, the
Giant's--I had some imaginary recollection of an old man
abdicating, coming, more slowly and more feebly, down it, when he
heard the bell, proclaiming his successor--I glided off, in one of
the dark boats, until we came to an old arsenal guarded by four
marble lions. To make my Dream more monstrous and unlikely, one of
these had words and sentences upon its body, inscribed there, at an
unknown time, and in an unknown language; so that their purport was
a mystery to all men.

There was little sound of hammers in this place for building ships,
and little work in progress; for the greatness of the city was no
more, as I have said. Indeed, it seemed a very wreck found
drifting on the sea; a strange flag hoisted in its honourable
stations, and strangers standing at its helm. A splendid barge in
which its ancient chief had gone forth, pompously, at certain
periods, to wed the ocean, lay here, I thought, no more; but, in
its place, there was a tiny model, made from recollection like the
city's greatness; and it told of what had been (so are the strong
and weak confounded in the dust) almost as eloquently as the
massive pillars, arches, roofs, reared to overshadow stately ships
that had no other shadow now, upon the water or the earth.

An armoury was there yet. Plundered and despoiled; but an armoury.
With a fierce standard taken from the Turks, drooping in the dull
air of its cage. Rich suits of mail worn by great warriors were
hoarded there; crossbows and bolts; quivers full of arrows; spears;
swords, daggers, maces, shields, and heavy-headed axes. Plates of
wrought steel and iron, to make the gallant horse a monster cased
in metal scales; and one spring-weapon (easy to be carried in the
breast) designed to do its office noiselessly, and made for
shooting men with poisoned darts.

One press or case I saw, full of accursed instruments of torture
horribly contrived to cramp, and pinch, and grind and crush men's
bones, and tear and twist them with the torment of a thousand
deaths. Before it, were two iron helmets, with breast-pieces:
made to close up tight and smooth upon the heads of living
sufferers; and fastened on to each, was a small knob or anvil,
where the directing devil could repose his elbow at his ease, and
listen, near the walled-up ear, to the lamentations and confessions
of the wretch within. There was that grim resemblance in them to
the human shape--they were such moulds of sweating faces, pained
and cramped--that it was difficult to think them empty; and
terrible distortions lingering within them, seemed to follow me,
when, taking to my boat again, I rowed off to a kind of garden or
public walk in the sea, where there were grass and trees. But I
forgot them when I stood upon its farthest brink--I stood there, in
my dream--and looked, along the ripple, to the setting sun; before
me, in the sky and on the deep, a crimson flush; and behind me the
whole city resolving into streaks of red and purple, on the water.

In the luxurious wonder of so rare a dream, I took but little heed
of time, and had but little understanding of its flight. But there
were days and nights in it; and when the sun was high, and when the
rays of lamps were crooked in the running water, I was still
afloat, I thought: plashing the slippery walls and houses with the
cleavings of the tide, as my black boat, borne upon it, skimmed
along the streets.

Sometimes, alighting at the doors of churches and vast palaces, I
wandered on, from room to room, from aisle to aisle, through
labyrinths of rich altars, ancient monuments; decayed apartments
where the furniture, half awful, half grotesque, was mouldering
away. Pictures were there, replete with such enduring beauty and
expression: with such passion, truth and power: that they seemed
so many young and fresh realities among a host of spectres. I
thought these, often intermingled with the old days of the city:
with its beauties, tyrants, captains, patriots, merchants,
counters, priests: nay, with its very stones, and bricks, and
public places; all of which lived again, about me, on the walls.
Then, coming down some marble staircase where the water lapped and
oozed against the lower steps, I passed into my boat again, and
went on in my dream.

Floating down narrow lanes, where carpenters, at work with plane
and chisel in their shops, tossed the light shaving straight upon
the water, where it lay like weed, or ebbed away before me in a
tangled heap. Past open doors, decayed and rotten from long
steeping in the wet, through which some scanty patch of vine shone
green and bright, making unusual shadows on the pavement with its
trembling leaves. Past quays and terraces, where women, gracefully
veiled, were passing and repassing, and where idlers were reclining
in the sunshine, on flag-stones and on flights of steps. Past
bridges, where there were idlers too; loitering and looking over.
Below stone balconies, erected at a giddy height, before the
loftiest windows of the loftiest houses. Past plots of garden,
theatres, shrines, prodigious piles of architecture--Gothic--
Saracenic--fanciful with all the fancies of all times and
countries. Past buildings that were high, and low, and black, and
white, and straight, and crooked; mean and grand, crazy and strong.
Twining among a tangled lot of boats and barges, and shooting out
at last into a Grand Canal! There, in the errant fancy of my
dream, I saw old Shylock passing to and fro upon a bridge, all
built upon with shops and humming with the tongues of men; a form I
seemed to know for Desdemona's, leaned down through a latticed
blind to pluck a flower. And, in the dream, I thought that
Shakespeare's spirit was abroad upon the water somewhere: stealing
through the city.

At night, when two votive lamps burnt before an image of the
Virgin, in a gallery outside the great cathedral, near the roof, I
fancied that the great piazza of the Winged Lion was a blaze of
cheerful light, and that its whole arcade was thronged with people;
while crowds were diverting themselves in splendid coffee-houses
opening from it--which were never shut, I thought, but open all
night long. When the bronze giants struck the hour of midnight on
the bell, I thought the life and animation of the city were all
centred here; and as I rowed away, abreast the silent quays, I only
saw them dotted, here and there, with sleeping boatmen wrapped up
in their cloaks, and lying at full length upon the stones.

But close about the quays and churches, palaces and prisons sucking
at their walls, and welling up into the secret places of the town:
crept the water always. Noiseless and watchful: coiled round and
round it, in its many folds, like an old serpent: waiting for the
time, I thought, when people should look down into its depths for
any stone of the old city that had claimed to be its mistress.

Thus it floated me away, until I awoke in the old market-place at
Verona. I have, many and many a time, thought since, of this
strange Dream upon the water: half-wondering if it lie there yet,
and if its name be VENICE.

Charles Dickens