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Two Old Houses and Three Young Women

There are times and places that come back yet again, but that,
when the brooding tourist puts out his hand to them, meet it a
little slowly, or even seem to recede a step, as if in slight
fear of some liberty he may take. Surely they should know by this
time that he is capable of taking none. He has his own way--he
makes it all right. It now becomes just a part of the charming
solicitation that it presents precisely a problem--that of giving
the particular thing as much as possible without at the same time
giving it, as we say, away. There are considerations,
proprieties, a necessary indirectness--he must use, in short, a
little art. No necessity, however, more than this, makes him warm
to his work, and thus it is that, after all, he hangs his three
pictures.


I

The evening that was to give me the first of them was by no means
the first occasion of my asking myself if that inveterate "style"
of which we talk so much be absolutely conditioned--in dear old
Venice and elsewhere--on decrepitude. Is it the style that has
brought about the decrepitude, or the decrepitude that has, as it
were, intensified and consecrated the style? There is an
ambiguity about it all that constantly haunts and beguiles. Dear
old Venice has lost her complexion, her figure, her reputation,
her self-respect; and yet, with it all, has so puzzlingly not
lost a shred of her distinction. Perhaps indeed the case is
simpler than it seems, for the poetry of misfortune is familiar
to us all, whereas, in spite of a stroke here and there of some
happy justice that charms, we scarce find ourselves anywhere
arrested by the poetry of a run of luck. The misfortune of Venice
being, accordingly, at every point, what we most touch, feel and
see, we end by assuming it to be of the essence of her dignity; a
consequence, we become aware, by the way, sufficiently
discouraging to the general application or pretension of style,
and all the more that, to make the final felicity deep, the
original greatness must have been something tremendous. If it be
the ruins that are noble we have known plenty that were not, and
moreover there are degrees and varieties: certain monuments,
solid survivals, hold up their heads and decline to ask for a
grain of your pity. Well, one knows of course when to keep one's
pity to oneself; yet one clings, even in the face of the colder
stare, to one's prized Venetian privilege of making the sense of
doom and decay a part of every impression. Cheerful work, it may
be said of course; and it is doubtless only in Venice that you
gain more by such a trick than you lose. What was most beautiful
is gone; what was next most beautiful is, thank goodness, going--
that, I think, is the monstrous description of the better part of
your thought. Is it really your fault if the place makes you want
so desperately to read history into everything?

You do that wherever you turn and wherever you look, and you do
it, I should say, most of all at night. It comes to you there
with longer knowledge, and with all deference to what flushes and
shimmers, that the night is the real time. It perhaps even
wouldn't take much to make you award the palm to the nights of
winter. This is certainly true for the form of progression that
is most characteristic, for every question of departure and
arrival by gondola. The little closed cabin of this perfect
vehicle, the movement, the darkness and the plash, the
indistinguishable swerves and twists, all the things you don't
see and all the things you do feel--each dim recognition and
obscure arrest is a possible throb of your sense of being floated
to your doom, even when the truth is simply and sociably that you
are going out to tea. Nowhere else is anything as innocent so
mysterious, nor anything as mysterious so pleasantly deterrent to
protest. These are the moments when you are most daringly
Venetian, most content to leave cheap trippers and other aliens
the high light of the mid-lagoon and the pursuit of pink and
gold. The splendid day is good enough for them; what is
best for you is to stop at last, as you are now stopping, among
clustered pali and softly-shifting poops and prows, at a
great flight of water-steps that play their admirable part in the
general effect of a great entrance. The high doors stand open
from them to the paved chamber of a basement tremendously tall
and not vulgarly lighted, from which, in turn, mounts the slow
stone staircase that draws you further on. The great point is,
that if you are worthy of this impression at all, there isn't a
single item of it of which the association isn't noble. Hold to
it fast that there is no other such dignity of arrival as arrival
by water. Hold to it that to float and slacken and gently bump,
to creep out of the low, dark felze and make the few
guided movements and find the strong crooked and offered arm, and
then, beneath lighted palace-windows, pass up the few damp steps
on the precautionary carpet--hold to it that these things
constitute a preparation of which the only defect is that it may
sometimes perhaps really prepare too much. It's so stately that
what can come after?--it's so good in itself that what, upstairs,
as we comparative vulgarians say, can be better? Hold to it, at
any rate, that if a lady, in especial, scrambles out of a
carriage, tumbles out of a cab, flops out of a tram-car, and
hurtles, projectile-like, out of a "lightning-elevator," she
alights from the Venetian conveyance as Cleopatra may have
stepped from her barge. Upstairs--whatever may be yet in store
for her--her entrance shall still advantageously enjoy the
support most opposed to the "momentum" acquired. The beauty of
the matter has been in the absence of all momentum--elsewhere so
scientifically applied to us, from behind, by the terrible life
of our day--and in the fact that, as the elements of slowness,
the felicities of deliberation, doubtless thus all hang together,
the last of calculable dangers is to enter a great Venetian room
with a rush.

Not the least happy note, therefore, of the picture I am trying
to frame is that there was absolutely no rushing; not only in the
sense of a scramble over marble floors, but, by reason of
something dissuasive and distributive in the very air of the
place, a suggestion, under the fine old ceilings and among types
of face and figure abounding in the unexpected, that here were
many things to consider. Perhaps the simplest rendering of a
scene into the depths of which there are good grounds of
discretion for not sinking would be just this emphasis on the
value of the unexpected for such occasions--with due
qualification, naturally, of its degree. Unexpectedness pure and
simple, it is needless to say, may easily endanger any social
gathering, and I hasten to add moreover that the figures and
faces I speak of were probably not in the least unexpected to
each other. The stage they occupied was a stage of variety--
Venice has ever been a garden of strange social flowers. It is
only as reflected in the consciousness of the visitor from afar--
brooding tourist even call him, or sharp-eyed bird on the branch-
-that I attempt to give you the little drama; beginning with the
felicity that most appealed to him, the visible, unmistakable
fact that he was the only representative of his class. The whole
of the rest of the business was but what he saw and felt and
fancied--what he was to remember and what he was to forget.
Through it all, I may say distinctly, he clung to his great
Venetian clue--the explanation of everything by the historic
idea. It was a high historic house, with such a quantity of
recorded past twinkling in the multitudinous candles that one
grasped at the idea of something waning and displaced, and might
even fondly and secretly nurse the conceit that what one was
having was just the very last. Wasn't it certainly, for instance,
no mere illusion that there is no appreciable future left for
such manners--an urbanity so comprehensive, a form so
transmitted, as those of such a hostess and such a host? The
future is for a different conception of the graceful altogether--
so far as it's for a conception of the graceful at all. Into that
computation I shall not attempt to enter; but these
representative products of an antique culture, at least, and one
of which the secret seems more likely than not to be lost, were
not common, nor indeed was any one else--in the circle to which
the picture most insisted on restricting itself.

Neither, on the other hand, was anyone either very beautiful or
very fresh: which was again, exactly, a precious "value" on an
occasion that was to shine most, to the imagination, by the
complexity of its references. Such old, old women with such old,
old jewels; such ugly, ugly ones with such handsome, becoming
names; such battered, fatigued gentlemen with such inscrutable
decorations; such an absence of youth, for the most part, in
either sex--of the pink and white, the "bud" of new worlds; such
a general personal air, in fine, of being the worse for a good
deal of wear in various old ones. It was not a society--that was
clear--in which little girls and boys set the tune; and there was
that about it all that might well have cast a shadow on the path
of even the most successful little girl. Yet also--let me not be
rudely inexact--it was in honour of youth and freshness that we
had all been convened. The fiançailles of the last--unless
it were the last but one--unmarried daughter of the house had
just been brought to a proper climax; the contract had been
signed, the betrothal rounded off--I'm not sure that the civil
marriage hadn't, that day, taken place. The occasion then had in
fact the most charming of heroines and the most ingenuous of
heroes, a young man, the latter, all happily suffused with a fair
Austrian blush. The young lady had had, besides other more or
less shining recent ancestors, a very famous paternal
grandmother, who had played a great part in the political history
of her time and whose portrait, in the taste and dress of 1830,
was conspicuous in one of the rooms. The grand-daughter of this
celebrity, of royal race, was strikingly like her and, by a
fortunate stroke, had been habited, combed, curled in a manner
exactly to reproduce the portrait. These things were charming and
amusing, as indeed were several other things besides. The great
Venetian beauty of our period was there, and nature had equipped
the great Venetian beauty for her part with the properest sense
of the suitable, or in any case with a splendid generosity--
since on the ideally suitable character of so brave a
human symbol who shall have the last word? This responsible agent
was at all events the beauty in the world about whom probably,
most, the absence of question (an absence never wholly
propitious) would a little smugly and monotonously flourish: the
one thing wanting to the interest she inspired was thus the
possibility of ever discussing it. There were plenty of
suggestive subjects round about, on the other hand, as to which
the exchange of ideas would by no means necessarily have dropped.
You profit to the full at such times by all the old voices,
echoes, images--by that element of the history of Venice which
represents all Europe as having at one time and another revelled
or rested, asked for pleasure or for patience there; which gives
you the place supremely as the refuge of endless strange secrets,
broken fortunes and wounded hearts.


II

There had been, on lines of further or different speculation, a
young Englishman to luncheon, and the young Englishman had proved
"sympathetic"; so that when it was a question afterwards of some
of the more hidden treasures, the browner depths of the old
churches, the case became one for mutual guidance and gratitude--
for a small afternoon tour and the wait of a pair of friends in
the warm little campi, at locked doors for which the
nearest urchin had scurried off to fetch the keeper of the key.
There are few brown depths to-day into which the light of the
hotels doesn't shine, and few hidden treasures about which pages
enough, doubtless, haven't already been printed: my business,
accordingly, let me hasten to say, is not now with the fond
renewal of any discovery--at least in the order of impressions
most usual. Your discovery may be, for that matter, renewed every
week; the only essential is the good luck--which a fair amount of
practice has taught you to count upon-of not finding, for the
particular occasion, other discoverers in the field. Then, in the
quiet corner, with the closed door--then in the presence of the
picture and of your companion's sensible emotion--not only the
original happy moment, but everything else, is renewed. Yet once
again it can all come back. The old custode, shuffling about in
the dimness, jerks away, to make sure of his tip, the old curtain
that isn't much more modern than the wonderful work itself. He
does his best to create light where light can never be; but you
have your practised groping gaze, and in guiding the young eyes
of your less confident associate, moreover, you feel you possess
the treasure. These are the refined pleasures that Venice has
still to give, these odd happy passages of communication and
response.


But the point of my reminiscence is that there were other
communications that day, as there were certainly other responses.
I have forgotten exactly what it was we were looking for--without
much success--when we met the three Sisters. Nothing requires
more care, as a long knowledge of Venice works in, than not to
lose the useful faculty of getting lost. I had so successfully
done my best to preserve it that I could at that moment
conscientiously profess an absence of any suspicion of where we
might be. It proved enough that, wherever we were, we were where
the three sisters found us. This was on a little bridge near a
big campo, and a part of the charm of the matter was the theory
that it was very much out of the way. They took us promptly in
hand--they were only walking over to San Marco to match some
coloured wool for the manufacture of such belated cushions as
still bloom with purple and green in the long leisures of old
palaces; and that mild errand could easily open a parenthesis.
The obscure church we had feebly imagined we were looking for
proved, if I am not mistaken, that of the sisters' parish; as to
which I have but a confused recollection of a large grey void and
of admiring for the first time a fine work of art of which I have
now quite lost the identity. This was the effect of the charming
beneficence of the three sisters, who presently were to give our
adventure a turn in the emotion of which everything that had
preceded seemed as nothing. It actually strikes me even as a
little dim to have been told by them, as we all fared together,
that a certain low, wide house, in a small square as to which I
found myself without particular association, had been in the far-
off time the residence of George Sand. And yet this was a fact
that, though I could then only feel it must be for another day,
would in a different connection have set me richly
reconstructing.

Madame Sand's famous Venetian year has been of late immensely in
the air--a tub of soiled linen which the muse of history, rolling
her sleeves well up, has not even yet quite ceased energetically
and publicly to wash. The house in question must have been the
house to which the wonderful lady betook herself when, in 1834,
after the dramatic exit of Alfred de Musset, she enjoyed that
remarkable period of rest and refreshment with the so long
silent, the but recently rediscovered, reported, extinguished,
Doctor Pagello. As an old Sandist--not exactly indeed of the
première heure, but of the fine high noon and golden
afternoon of the great career--I had been, though I confess too
inactively, curious as to a few points in the topography of the
eminent adventure to which I here allude; but had never got
beyond the little public fact, in itself always a bit of a thrill
to the Sandist, that the present Hotel Danieli had been the scene
of its first remarkable stages. I am not sure indeed that the
curiosity I speak of has not at last, in my breast, yielded to
another form of wonderment--truly to the rather rueful question
of why we have so continued to concern ourselves, and why the
fond observer of the footprints of genius is likely so to
continue, with a body of discussion, neither in itself and in its
day, nor in its preserved and attested records, at all positively
edifying. The answer to such an inquiry would doubtless reward
patience, but I fear we can now glance at its possibilities only
long enough to say that interesting persons--so they be of a
sufficiently approved and established interest--render in some
degree interesting whatever happens to them, and give it an
importance even when very little else (as in the case I refer to)
may have operated to give it a dignity. Which is where I leave
the issue of further identifications.

For the three sisters, in the kindest way in the world, had asked
us if we already knew their sequestered home and whether, in case
we didn't, we should be at all amused to see it. My own
acquaintance with them, though not of recent origin, had hitherto
lacked this enhancement, at which we both now grasped with the
full instinct, indescribable enough, of what it was likely to
give. But how, for that matter, either, can I find the right
expression of what was to remain with us of this episode? It is
the fault of the sad-eyed old witch of Venice that she so easily
puts more into things that can pass under the common names that
do for them elsewhere. Too much for a rough sketch was to be seen
and felt in the home of the three sisters, and in the delightful
and slightly pathetic deviation of their doing us so simply and
freely the honours of it. What was most immediately marked was
their resigned cosmopolite state, the effacement of old
conventional lines by foreign contact and example; by the action,
too, of causes full of a special interest, but not to be
emphasised perhaps--granted indeed they be named at all--without
a certain sadness of sympathy. If "style," in Venice, sits among
ruins, let us always lighten our tread when we pay her a visit.

Our steps were in fact, I am happy to think, almost soft enough
for a death-chamber as we stood in the big, vague sala of
the three sisters, spectators of their simplified state and their
beautiful blighted rooms, the memories, the portraits, the
shrunken relics of nine Doges. If I wanted a first chapter it was
here made to my hand; the painter of life and manners, as he
glanced about, could only sigh--as he so frequently has to--over
the vision of so much more truth than he can use. What on earth
is the need to "invent," in the midst of tragedy and comedy that
never cease? Why, with the subject itself, all round, so
inimitable, condemn the picture to the silliness of trying not to
be aware of it? The charming lonely girls, carrying so simply
their great name and fallen fortunes, the despoiled
decaduta house, the unfailing Italian grace, the space so
out of scale with actual needs, the absence of books, the
presence of ennui, the sense of the length of the hours and the
shortness of everything else--all this was a matter not only for
a second chapter and a third, but for a whole volume, a
dénoûment and a sequel.

This time, unmistakably, it was the last--Wordsworth's
stately "shade of that which once was great"; and it was
almost as if our distinguished young friends had consented
to pass away slowly in order to treat us to the vision. Ends are
only ends in truth, for the painter of pictures, when they are
more or less conscious and prolonged. One of the sisters had been
to London, whence she had brought back the impression of having
seen at the British Museum a room exclusively filled with books
and documents devoted to the commemoration of her family. She
must also then have encountered at the National Gallery the
exquisite specimen of an early Venetian master in which one of
her ancestors, then head of the State, kneels with so sweet a
dignity before the Virgin and Child. She was perhaps old enough,
none the less, to have seen this precious work taken down from
the wall of the room in which we sat and--on terms so far too
easy--carried away for ever; and not too young, at all events, to
have been present, now and then, when her candid elders,
enlightened too late as to what their sacrifice might really have
done for them, looked at each other with the pale hush of the
irreparable. We let ourselves note that these were matters to put
a great deal of old, old history into sweet young Venetian faces.


III

In Italy, if we come to that, this particular appearance is far
from being only in the streets, where we are apt most to observe
it--in countenances caught as we pass and in the objects marked
by the guide-books with their respective stellar allowances. It
is behind the walls of the houses that old, old history is thick
and that the multiplied stars of Baedeker might often best find
their application. The feast of St. John the Baptist is the feast
of the year in Florence, and it seemed to me on that night that I
could have scattered about me a handful of these signs. I had the
pleasure of spending a couple of hours on a signal high terrace
that overlooks the Arno, as well as in the galleries that open
out to it, where I met more than ever the pleasant curious
question of the disparity between the old conditions and the new
manners. Make our manners, we moderns, as good as we can, there
is still no getting over it that they are not good enough for
many of the great places. This was one of those scenes, and its
greatness came out to the full into the hot Florentine evening,
in which the pink and golden fires of the pyrotechnics arranged
on Ponte Carraja--the occasion of our assembly--lighted up the
large issue. The "good people" beneath were a huge, hot, gentle,
happy family; the fireworks on the bridge, kindling river as well
as sky, were delicate and charming; the terrace connected the two
wings that give bravery to the front of the palace, and the
close-hung pictures in the rooms, open in a long series, offered
to a lover of quiet perambulation an alternative hard to resist.

Wherever he stood--on the broad loggia, in the cluster of
company, among bland ejaculations and liquefied ices, or in the
presence of the mixed masters that led him from wall to wall--
such a seeker for the spirit of each occasion could only turn it
over that in the first place this was an intenser, finer little
Florence than ever, and that in the second the testimony was
again wonderful to former fashions and ideas. What did they do,
in the other time, the time of so much smaller a society, smaller
and fewer fortunes, more taste perhaps as to some particulars,
but fewer tastes, at any rate, and fewer habits and wants--what
did they do with chambers so multitudinous and so vast? Put their
"state" at its highest--and we know of many ways in which it must
have broken down--how did they live in them without the aid of
variety? How did they, in minor communities in which every one
knew every one, and every one's impression and effect had been
long, as we say, discounted, find representation and emulation
sufficiently amusing? Much of the charm of thinking of it,
however, is doubtless that we are not able to say. This leaves us
with the conviction that does them most honour: the old
generations built and arranged greatly for the simple reason that
they liked it, and they could bore themselves--to say nothing of
each other, when it came to that--better in noble conditions than
in mean ones.

It was not, I must add, of the far-away Florentine age that I
most thought, but of periods more recent and of which the sound
and beautiful house more directly spoke. If one had always been
homesick for the Arno-side of the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries, here was a chance, and a better one than ever, to
taste again of the cup. Many of the pictures--there was a
charming quarter of an hour when I had them to myself--were bad
enough to have passed for good in those delightful years. Shades
of Grand-Dukes encompassed me--Dukes of the pleasant later sort
who weren't really grand. There was still the sense of having
come too late--yet not too late, after all, for this glimpse and
this dream. My business was to people the place--its own business
had never been to save us the trouble of understanding it. And
then the deepest spell of all was perhaps that just here I was
supremely out of the way of the so terribly actual Florentine
question. This, as all the world knows, is a battle-ground, to-
day, in many journals, with all Italy practically pulling on one
side and all England, America and Germany pulling on the other: I
speak of course of the more or less articulate opinion. The
"improvement," the rectification of Florence is in the air, and
the problem of the particular ways in which, given such
desperately delicate cases, these matters should be understood.
The little treasure-city is, if there ever was one, a delicate
case-- more delicate perhaps than any other in the world save
that of our taking on ourselves to persuade the Italians that
they mayn't do as they like with their own. They so absolutely
may that I profess I see no happy issue from the fight. It will
take more tact than our combined tactful genius may at all
probably muster to convince them that their own is, by an
ingenious logic, much rather ours. It will take more
subtlety still to muster for them that dazzling show of examples
from which they may learn that what in general is "ours" shall
appear to them as a rule a sacrifice to beauty and a triumph of
taste. The situation, to the truly analytic mind, offers in
short, to perfection, all the elements of despair; and I am
afraid that if I hung back, at the Corsini palace, to woo
illusions and invoke the irrelevant, it was because I could
think, in the conditions, of no better way to meet the acute
responsibility of the critic than just to shirk it.

[1899.]


Henry James