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Other Tuscan Cities

I


I had scanted charming Pisa even as I had scanted great Siena in
my original small report of it, my scarce more than stammering
notes of years before; but even if there had been meagreness of
mere gaping vision--which there in fact hadn't been--as well as
insufficieny of public tribute, the indignity would soon have
ceased to weigh on my conscience. For to this affection I was to
return again still oftener than to the strong call of Siena my
eventual frequentations of Pisa, all merely impressionistic and
amateurish as they might be--and I pretended, up and down the
length of the land, to none other--leave me at the hither end of
time with little more than a confused consciousness of exquisite
quality on the part of the small sweet scrap of a place of
ancient glory; a consciousness so pleadingly content to be
general and vague that I shrink from pulling it to pieces. The
Republic of Pisa fought with the Republic of Florence, through
the ages so ferociously and all but invincibly that what is so
pale and languid in her to-day may well be the aspect of any
civil or, still more, military creature bled and bled and bled at
the "critical" time of its life. She has verily a just languor
and is touchingly anæmic; the past history, or at any rate the
present perfect acceptedness, of which condition hangs about her
with the last grace of weakness, making her state in this
particular the very secret of her irresistible appeal. I was to
find the appeal, again and again, one of the sweetest, tenderest,
even if not one of the fullest and richest impressions possible;
and if I went back whenever I could it was very much as one
doesn't indecently neglect a gentle invalid friend. The couch of
the invalid friend, beautifully, appealingly resigned, has been
wheeled, say, for the case, into the warm still garden, and your
visit but consists of your sitting beside it with kind, discreet,
testifying silences. Such is the figurative form under which the
once rugged enemy of Florence, stretched at her length by the
rarely troubled Arno, to-day presents herself; and I find my
analogy complete even to my sense of the mere mild séance,
the inevitably tacit communion or rather blank interchange,
between motionless cripple and hardly more incurable admirer.

The terms of my enjoyment of Pisa scarce departed from that
ideal--slow contemplative perambulations, rather late in the day
and after work done mostly in the particular decent inn-room that
was repeatedly my portion; where the sunny flicker of the river
played up from below to the very ceiling, which, by the same
sign, anciently and curiously raftered and hanging over my table
at a great height, had been colour-pencilled into ornament as
fine (for all practical purposes) as the page of a missal. I add
to this, for remembrance, an inveteracy of evening idleness and
of reiterated ices in front of one of the quiet cafés--quiet as
everything at Pisa is quiet, or will certainly but in these
latest days have ceased to be; one in especial so beautifully, so
mysteriously void of bustle that almost always the neighbouring
presence and admirable chatter of some group of the local
University students would fall upon my ear, by the half-hour at
a time, not less as a privilege, frankly, than as a clear-cut
image of the young Italian mind and life, by which I lost
nothing. I use such terms as "admirable" and "privilege," in this
last most casual of connections--which was moreover no connection
at all but what my attention made it--simply as an acknowledgment
of the interest that might play there through some inevitable
thoughts. These were, for that matter, intensely in keeping with
the ancient scene and air: they dealt with the exquisite
difference between that tone and type of ingenuous adolescence--
in the mere relation of charmed audition--and other forms
of juvenility of whose mental and material accent one had
elsewhere met the assault. Civilised, charmingly civilised, were
my loquacious neighbours--as how had n't they to be, one asked
one's self, through the use of a medium of speech that is in
itself a sovereign saturation? There was the beautiful
congruity of the happily-caught impression; the fact of my young
men's general Tuscanism of tongue, which related them so on the
spot to the whole historic consensus of things. It wasn't
dialect--as it of course easily might have been elsewhere, at
Milan, at Turin, at Bologna, at Naples; it was the clear Italian
in which all the rest of the surrounding story was told, all the
rest of the result of time recorded; and it made them delightful,
prattling, unconscious men of the particular little constituted
and bequeathed world which everything else that was charged with
old meanings and old beauty referred to--all the more that their
talk was never by any chance of romping games or deeds of
violence, but kept flowering, charmingly and incredibly, into
eager ideas and literary opinions and philosophic discussions
and, upon my honour, vital questions.

They have taken me too far, for so light a reminiscence; but I
claim for the loose web of my impressions at no point a heavier
texture. Which comes back to what I was a moment ago saying--
that just in proportion as you "feel" the morbid charm of Pisa
you press on it gently, and this somehow even under stress of
whatever respectful attention. I found this last impulse, at all
events, so far as I was concerned, quite contentedly spend itself
in a renewed sense of the simple large pacified felicity of such
an afternoon aspect as that of the Lung' Arno, taken up or down
its course; whether to within sight of small Santa Maria della
Spina, the tiny, the delicate, the exquisite Gothic chapel
perched where the quay drops straight, or, in the other
direction, toward the melting perspective of the narrow local
pleasure-ground, the rather thin and careless bosky grace of
which recedes, beside the stream whose very turbidity pleases, to
a middle distance of hot and tangled and exuberant rural industry
and a proper blue horizon of Carrara mountains. The Pisan Lung'
Arno is shorter and less featured and framed than the Florentine,
but it has the fine accent of a marked curve and is quite as
bravely Tuscan; witness the type of river-fronting palace which,
in half-a-dozen massive specimens, the last word of the anciently
"handsome," are of the essence of the physiognomy of the place.
In the glow of which retrospective admission I ask myself how I
came, under my first flush, reflected in other pages, to fail of
justice to so much proud domestic architecture--in the very teeth
moreover of the fact that I was for ever paying my compliments,
in a wistful, wondering way, to the fine Palazzo Lanfranchi,
occupied in 1822 by the migratory Byron, and whither Leigh Hunt,
as commemorated in the latter's Autobiography, came out to join
him in an odd journalistic scheme.

Of course, however, I need scarcely add, the centre of my daily
revolution--quite thereby on the circumference--was the great
Company of Four in their sequestered corner; objects of regularly
recurrent pious pilgrimage, if for no other purpose than to see
whether each would each time again so inimitably carry itself as
one of a group of wonderfully-worked old ivories. Their charm of
relation to each other and to everything else that concerns them,
that of the quartette of monuments, is more or less inexpressible
all round; but not the least of it, ever, is in their beautiful
secret for taking at different hours and seasons, in different
states of the light, the sky, the wind, the weather--in
different states, even, it used verily to seem to me, of an
admirer's imagination or temper or nerves--different complexional
appearances, different shades and pallors, different glows and
chills. I have seen them look almost viciously black, and I have
seen them as clear and fair as pale gold. And these things, for
the most part, off on the large grassy carpet spread for them,
and with the elbow of the old city-wall, not elsewhere erect,
respectfully but protectingly crooked about, to the tune of a
usual unanimity save perhaps in the case of the Leaning Tower--so
abnormal a member of any respectable family this structure at
best that I always somehow fancied its three companions, the
Cathedral, the Baptistery and the Campo Santo, capable of quiet
common understandings, for the major or the minor effect, into
which their odd fellow, no hint thrown out to him, was left to
enter as he might. If one haunted the place, one ended by
yielding to the conceit that, beautifully though the others of
the group may be said to behave about him, one sometimes caught
them in the act of tacitly combining to ignore him--as if he had,
after so long, begun to give on their nerves. Or is that
absurdity but my shamefaced form of admission that, for all the
wonder of him, he finally gave on mine? Frankly--I would put it
at such moments--he becomes at last an optical bore or
betise.

[Illustration: THE LOGGIA, LUCCA.]


II


To Lucca I was not to return often--I was to return only once;
when that compact and admirable little city, the very model of a
small pays de Cocagne, overflowing with everything that
makes for ease, for plenty, for beauty, for interest and good
example, renewed for me, in the highest degree, its genial and
robust appearance. The perfection of this renewal must indeed
have been, at bottom, the ground of my rather hanging back from
possible excess of acquaintance--with the instinct that so right
and rich and rounded a little impression had better be left than
endangered. I remember positively saying to myself the second
time that no brown-and-gold Tuscan city, even, could be as
happy as Lucca looked--save always, exactly, Lucca; so that, on
the chance of any shade of human illusion in the case, I
wouldn't, as a brooding analyst, go within fifty miles of it
again. Just so, I fear I must confess, it was this mere face-
value of the place that, when I went back, formed my sufficiency;
I spent all my scant time--or the greater part, for I took a day
to drive over to the Bagni--just gaping at its visible attitude.
This may be described as that of simply sitting there, through
the centuries, at the receipt of perfect felicity; on its
splendid solid seat of russet masonry, that is--for its great
republican ramparts of long ago still lock it tight--with its
wide garden-land, its ancient appanage or hereditary domain,
teeming and blooming with everything that is good and pleasant
for man, all about, and with a ring of graceful and noble, yet
comparatively unbeneficed uplands and mountains watching it, for
very envy, across the plain, as a circle of bigger boys, in the
playground, may watch a privileged or pampered smaller one munch
a particularly fine apple. Half smothered thus in oil and wine
and corn and all the fruits of the earth, Lucca seems fairly to
laugh for good-humour, and it's as if one can't say more for her
than that, thanks to her putting forward for you a temperament
somehow still richer than her heritage, you forgive her at every
turn her fortune. She smiles up at you her greeting as you dip
into her wide lap, out of which you may select almost any rare
morsel whatever. Looking back at my own choice indeed I see it
must have suffered a certain embarrassment--that of the sense of
too many things; for I scarce remember choosing at all, any more
than I recall having had to go hungry. I turned into all the
churches--taking care, however, to pause before one of them,
though before which I now irrecoverably forget, for verification
of Ruskin's so characteristically magnified rapture over the high
and rather narrow and obscure hunting-frieze on its front--and in
the Cathedral paid my respects at every turn to the greatest of
Lucchesi, Matteo Civitale, wisest, sanest, homeliest, kindest of
quattro-cento sculptors, to whose works the Duomo serves
almost as a museum. But my nearest approach to anything so
invidious as a discrimination or a preference, under the spell of
so felt an equilibrium, must have been the act of engaging a
carriage for the Baths.

That inconsequence once perpetrated, let me add, the impression
was as right as any other--the impression of the drive through
the huge general tangled and fruited podere of the
countryside; that of the pair of jogging hours that bring the
visitor to where the wideish gate of the valley of the Serchio
opens. The question after this became quite other; the narrowing,
though always more or less smiling gorge that draws you on and on
is a different, a distinct proposition altogether, with its own
individual grace of appeal and association. It is the
association, exactly, that would even now, on this page, beckon
me forward, or perhaps I should rather say backward--weren't more
than a glance at it out of the question--to a view of that easier
and not so inordinately remote past when "people spent the
summer" in these perhaps slightly stuffy shades. I speak of that
age, I think of it at least, as easier than ours, in spite of the
fact that even as I made my pilgrimage the mark of modern change,
the railway in construction, had begun to be distinct, though the
automobile was still pretty far in the future. The relations and
proportions of everything are of course now altered--I indeed, I
confess, wince at the vision of the cloud of motor-dust that must
in the fine season hang over the whole connection. That
represents greater promptness of approach to the bosky depths of
Ponte-a-Serraglio and the Bagni Caldi, but it throws back the
other time, that of the old jogging relation, of the Tuscan
grand-ducal "season" and the small cosmopolite sociability, into
quite Arcadian air and the comparatively primitive scale. The
"easier" Italy of our infatuated precursors there wears its
glamour of facility not through any question of "the development
of communications," but through the very absence of the dream of
that boon, thanks to which every one (among the infatuated) lived
on terms of so much closer intercourse with the general object of
their passion. After we had crossed the Serchio that beautiful
day we passed into the charming, the amiably tortuous, the
thickly umbrageous, valley of the Lima, and then it was that I
seemed fairly to remount the stream of time; figuring to myself
wistfully, at the small scattered centres of entertainment--
modest inns, pensions and other places of convenience clustered
where the friendly torrent is bridged or the forested slopes
adjust themselves--what the summer days and the summer rambles
and the summer dreams must have been, in the blest place, when
"people" (by which I mean the contingent of beguiled barbarians)
didn't know better, as we say, than to content themselves with
such a mild substitute, such a soft, sweet and essentially
elegant apology, for adventure. One wanted not simply to hang
about a little, but really to live back, as surely one might,
have done by staying on, into the so romantically strong, if
mechanically weak, Italy of the associations of one's youth. It
was a pang to have to revert to the present even in the form of
Lucca--which says everything.


III


If undeveloped communications were to become enough for me at
those retrospective moments, I might have felt myself supplied to
my taste, let me go on to say, at the hour of my making, with
great resolution, an attempt on high-seated and quite grandly
out-of-the-way Volterra: a reminiscence associated with quite a
different year and, I should perhaps sooner have bethought
myself, with my fond experience of Pisa--inasmuch as it was
during a pause under that bland and motionless wing that I seem
to have had to organise in the darkness of a summer dawn my
approach to the old Etruscan stronghold. The railway then
existed, but I rose in the dim small hours to take my train;
moreover, so far as that might too much savour of an incongruous
facility, the fault was in due course quite adequately repaired
by an apparent repudiation of any awareness of such false notes
on the part of the town. I may not invite the reader to penetrate
with me by so much as a step the boundless backward reach of
history to which the more massive of the Etruscan gates of
Volterra, the Porta all' Arco, forms the solidest of thresholds;
since I perforce take no step myself, and am even exceptionally
condemned here to impressionism unashamed. My errand was to spend
a Sunday with an Italian friend, a native in fact of the place,
master of a house there in which he offered me hospitality; who,
also arriving from Florence the night before, had obligingly come
on with me from Pisa, and whose consciousness of a due urbanity,
already rather overstrained, and still well before noon, by the
accumulation of our matutinal vicissitudes and other grounds for
patience, met all ruefully at the station the supreme shock of an
apparently great desolate world of volcanic hills, of blank,
though "engineered," undulations, as the emergence of a road
testified, unmitigated by the smallest sign of a wheeled vehicle.
The station, in other words, looked out at that time (and I
daresay the case hasn't strikingly altered) on a mere bare huge
hill-country, by some remote mighty shoulder of which the goal of
our pilgrimage, so questionably "served" by the railway, was
hidden from view. Served as well by a belated omnibus, a four-in-
hand of lame and lamentable quality, the place, I hasten to add,
eventually put forth some show of being; after a complete
practical recognition of which, let me at once further mention,
all the other, the positive and sublime, connections of Volterra
established themselves for me without my lifting a finger.

The small shrunken, but still lordly prehistoric city is perched,
when once you have rather painfully zigzagged to within sight of
it, very much as an eagle's eyrie, oversweeping the land and the
sea; and to that type of position, the ideal of the airy peak of
vantage, with all accessories and minor features a drop, a slide
and a giddiness, its individual items and elements strike you at
first as instinctively conforming. This impression was doubtless
after a little modified for me; there were levels, there were
small stony practicable streets, there were walks and strolls,
outside the gates and roundabout the cyclopean wall, to the far
end of downward-tending protrusions and promontories, natural
buttresses and pleasant terrene headlands, friendly suburban
spots (one would call them if the word had less detestable
references) where games of bowls and overtrellised wine-tables
could put in their note; in spite of which however my friend's
little house of hospitality, clean and charming and oh, so
immemorially Tuscan, was as perpendicular and ladder-like as so
compact a residence could be; it kept up for me beautifully--as
regards posture and air, though humanly and socially it rather
cooed like a dovecote--the illusion of the vertiginously
"balanced" eagle's nest. The air, in truth, all the rest of that
splendid day, must have been the key to the promptly-produced
intensity of one's relation to every aspect of the charming
episode; the light, cool, keen air of those delightful high
places, in Italy, that tonically correct the ardours of July, and
which at our actual altitude could but affect me as the very
breath of the grand local legend. I might have "had" the little
house, our particular eagle's nest, for the summer, and even on
such touching terms; and I well remember the force of the
temptation to take it, if only other complications had permitted;
to spend the series of weeks with that admirable
interesting freshness in my lungs: interesting, I
especially note, as the strong appropriate medium in which a
continuity with the irrecoverable but still effective past had
been so robustly preserved. I couldn't yield, alas, to the
conceived felicity, which had half-a-dozen appealing aspects; I
could only, while thus feeling how the atmospheric medium itself
made for a positively initiative exhilaration, enjoy my illusion
till the morrow. The exhilaration therefore supplies to memory
the whole light in which, for the too brief time, I went about
"seeing" Volterra; so that my glance at the seated splendour
reduces itself, as I have said, to the merest impressionism;
nothing more was to be looked for, on the stretched surface of
consciousness, from one breezy wash of the brush. I find there
the clean strong image simplified to the three or four
unforgettable particulars of the vast rake of the view; with the
Maremma, of evil fame, more or less immediately below, but with
those islands of the sea, Corsica and Elba, the names of which
are sharply associational beyond any others, dressing the far
horizon in the grand manner, and the Ligurian coast-line melting
northward into beauty and history galore; with colossal
uncemented blocks of Etruscan gates and walls plunging you--and
by their very interest--into a sweet surrender of any privilege
of appreciation more crushing than your general synthetic stare;
and with the rich and perfectly arranged museum, an unsurpassed
exhibition of monumental treasure from Etruscan tombs, funereal
urns mainly, reliquaries of an infinite power to move and charm
us still, contributing to this same so designed, but somehow at
the same time so inspired, collapse of the historic imagination
under too heavy a pressure, or abeyance of "private judgment" in
too unequal a relation.


IV


I remember recovering private judgment indeed in the course of
two or three days following the excursion I have just noted;
which must have shaped themselves in some sort of consonance with
the idea that as we were hereabouts in the very middle of dim
Etruria a common self-respect prescribed our somehow profiting by
the fact. This kindled in us the spirit of exploration, but with
results of which I here attempt to record, so utterly does the
whole impression swoon away, for present memory, into vagueness,
confusion and intolerable heat, Our self-respect was of the
common order, but the blaze of the July sun was, even for
Tuscany, of the uncommon; so that the project of a trudging quest
for Etruscan tombs in shadeless wastes yielded to its own
temerity. There comes back to me nevertheless at the same time,
from the mild misadventure, and quite as through this positive
humility of failure, the sense of a supremely intimate revelation
of Italy in undress, so to speak (the state, it seemed, in which
one would most fondly, most ideally, enjoy her); Italy no longer
in winter starch and sobriety, with winter manners and winter
prices and winter excuses, all addressed to the forestieri
and the philistines; but lolling at her length, with her graces
all relaxed, and thereby only the more natural; the brilliant
performer, in short, en famille, the curtain down and her
salary stopped for the season--thanks to which she is by so much
more the easy genius and the good creature as she is by so much
less the advertised prima donna. She received us nowhere
more sympathetically, that is with less ceremony or self-
consciousness, I seem to recall, than at Montepulciano, for
instance--where it was indeed that the recovery of private
judgment I just referred to couldn't help taking place. What we
were doing, or what we expected to do, at Montepulciano I keep no
other trace of than is bound up in a present quite tender
consciousness that I wouldn't for the world not have been there.
I think my reason must have been largely just in the beauty of
the name (for could any beauty be greater?), reinforced no doubt
by the fame of the local vintage and the sense of how we should
quaff it on the spot. Perhaps we quaffed it too constantly; since
the romantic picture reduces itself for me but to two definite
appearances; that of the more priggish discrimination so far
reasserting itself as to advise me that Montepulciano was dirty,
even remarkably dirty; and that of her being not much else
besides but perched and brown and queer and crooked, and noble
withal (which is what almost any Tuscan city more easily than not
acquits herself of; all the while she may on such occasions
figure, when one looks off from her to the end of dark street-
vistas or catches glimpses through high arcades, some big
battered, blistered, overladen, overmasted ship, swimming in a
violet sea).

If I have lost the sense of what we were doing, that could at all
suffer commemoration, at Montepulciano, so I sit helpless before
the memory of small stewing Torrita, which we must somehow have
expected to yield, under our confidence, a view of shy charms,
but which did n't yield, to my recollection, even anything that
could fairly be called a breakfast or a dinner. There may have
been in the neighbourhood a rumour of Etruscan tombs; the
neighbourhood, however, was vast, and that possibility not to be
verified, in the conditions, save after due refreshment. Then it
was, doubtless, that the question of refreshment so beckoned us,
by a direct appeal, straight across country, from Perugia, that,
casting consistency, if not to the winds, since alas there were
none, but to the lifeless air, we made the sweltering best of our
way (and it took, for the distance, a terrible time) to the Grand
Hotel of that city. This course shines for me, in the retrospect,
with a light even more shameless than that in which my rueful
conscience then saw it; since we thus exchanged again, at a
stroke, the tousled bonne fille of our vacational Tuscany
for the formal and figged-out presence of Italy on her good
behaviour. We had never seen her conform more to all the
proprieties, we felt, than under this aspect of lavish
hospitality to that now apparently quite inveterate swarm of
pampered forestieri, English and Americans in especial,
who, having had Roman palaces and villas deliciously to linger
in, break the northward journey, when once they decide to take
it, in the Umbrian paradise. They were, goodness knows, within
their rights, and we profited, as anyone may easily and cannily
profit at that time, by the sophistications paraded for them;
only I feel, as I pleasantly recover it all, that though we had
arrived perhaps at the most poetical of watering-places we had
lost our finer clue. (The difference from other days was
immense, all the span of evolution from the ancient malodorous
inn which somehow did n't matter, to that new type of polyglot
caravanserai which everywhere insists on mattering--mattering,
even in places where other interests abound, so much more than
anything else.) That clue, the finer as I say, I would fain at
any rate to-day pick up for its close attachment to another
Tuscan city or two--for a felt pull from strange little San
Gimignano delle belle Torre in especial; by which I mean from the
memory of a summer Sunday spent there during a stay at Siena. But
I have already superabounded, for mere love of my general present
rubric--the real thickness of experience having a good deal
evaporated, so that the Tiny Town of the Many Towers hangs before
me, not to say, rather, far behind me, after the manner of an
object directly meeting the wrong or diminishing lens of one's
telescope.

It did everything, on the occasion of that pilgrimage, that it
was expected to do, presenting itself more or less in the guise
of some rare silvery shell, washed up by the sea of time, cracked
and battered and dishonoured, with its mutilated marks of
adjustment to the extinct type of creature it once harboured
figuring against the sky as maimed gesticulating arms flourished
in protest against fate. If the centuries, however, had pretty
well cleaned out, vulgarly speaking, this amazing little
fortress-town, it wasn't that a mere aching void was bequeathed
us, I recognise as I consult a somewhat faded impression; the
whole scene and occasion come back to me as the exhibition, on
the contrary, of a stage rather crowded and agitated, of no small
quantity of sound and fury, of concussions, discussions,
vociferations, hurryings to and fro, that could scarce have
reached a higher pitch in the old days of the siege and the
sortie. San Gimignano affected me, to a certainty, as not dead, I
mean, but as inspired with that strange and slightly sinister new
life that is now, in case after case, up and down the peninsula,
and even in presence of the dryest and most scattered bones,
producing the miracle of resurrection. The effect is often--and I
find it strikingly involved in this particular reminiscence--that
of the buried hero himself positively waking up to show you his
bones for a fee, and almost capering about in his appeal to your
attention. What has become of the soul of San Gimignano who shall
say?--but, of a genial modern Sunday, it is as if the heroic
skeleton, risen from the dust, were in high activity, officious
for your entertainment and your detention, clattering and
changing plates at the informal friendly inn, personally
conducting you to a sight of the admirable Santa Fina of
Ghirlandaio, as I believe is supposed, in a dim chapel of the
Collegiata church; the poor young saint, on her low bed, in a
state of ecstatic vision (the angelic apparition is given),
acconpanied by a few figures and accessories of the most
beautiful and touching truth. This image is what has most vividly
remained with me, of the day I thus so ineffectually recover; the
precious ill-set gem or domestic treasure of Santa Fina, and then
the wonderful drive, at eventide, back to Siena: the progress
through the darkening land that was like a dense fragrant garden,
all fireflies and warm emanations and dimly-seen motionless
festoons, extravagant vines and elegant branches intertwisted
for miles, with couples and companies of young countryfolk almost
as fondly united and raising their voices to the night as if
superfluously to sing out at you that they were happy, and above
all were Tuscan. On reflection, and to be just, I connect the
slightly incongruous loudness that hung about me under the
Beautiful Towers with the really too coarse competition for my
favour among the young vetturini who lay in wait for my approach,
and with an eye to my subsequent departure, on my quitting, at
some unremembered spot, the morning train from Siena, from which
point there was then still a drive. That onset was of a fine
mediaeval violence, but the subsiding echoes of it alone must
have afterwards borne me company; mingled, at the worst, with
certain reverberations of the animated rather than concentrated
presence of sundry young sketchers and copyists of my own
nationality, which element in the picture conveyed beyond
anything else how thoroughly it was all to sit again henceforth
in the eye of day. My final vision perhaps was of a sacred
reliquary not so much rudely as familiarly and "humorously" torn
open. The note had, with all its references, its own interest;
but I never went again.

Henry James