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Authors: Edward Sklepowich

Frail Barrier

Frail Barrier

The Mysteries of Venice, Book Eight

Edward Sklepowich


For Jennifer Baklik Vargas and all my other Cacchillo relatives

You fear not to place so frail a barrier between yourselves and the wildness of the sea.

Cassiodorus, regional official, 523


Death at the Feast

Once again, Urbino Macintyre and his friend Barbara, the Contessa da Capo-Zendrini, were in happy possession of their accustomed table at Caffè Florian.

On this afternoon in late July, however, the elegant Chinese Salon with its mirrors, maroon banquettes, bronze
, gilded wood, paintings under glass, and burnished parquet floor was less the refuge that it usually was for them. The doors between the salon and the wide arcade, closed in the cooler months, had been thrown open. The room seemed more of an extension of the piazza than a secluded vantage point, and had lost some of its charm for the two friends.

In the piazza, in what Napoleon had called the finest drawing room of Europe, tourists were jammed together, competing for space and their share of the hot, humid air that hung around them like wet sheets.

If any of them were foolish enough to pause for more than a few seconds to take in the domes of the Basilica, the redbrick Campanile, and the clock tower, with its zodiacal figures, or to angle for a photograph, they did it with considerable risk to limb if not actually to life. For the procession of admiration was not for the weak or the timid.

Even the ubiquitous pigeons seemed afraid of being trampled on the stones. Avoiding even the few unencumbered parts of the pavement, they settled on heads and shoulders, and looked down from the roofs and windowsills of the surrounding buildings. A screaming child spun in frantic circles as two pigeons tried to alight on her blonde head.

A man helped a dazed woman, who held her hand against her head, to the relative safety of Florian's arcade where a cream-colored curtain had been partly lowered past the high arches to block the sun. A father grasped his young son tightly as they plunged into the crowd. Outside the Chinese Salon a frail, elderly woman with a cane dropped into an empty chair at a table occupied by a young couple, took out a handkerchief, and patted her face.

Two tour groups approached each other beneath the pale blue sky like opposing armies. They parted the human sea and created waves that encroached on the edges of the outdoor tables, the orchestra platform, and the arcade. To guide their forces to the next spot to be conquered by eye and camera, one leader brandished a furled red umbrella decorated with yellow ribbons; the other held aloft a German flag, limp in the listless air.

A constant clamor echoed from the buildings. Urbino wished he could hear some of the expressions of delight on the lips of this surging mass. It would have compensated for seeing his beloved city inundated in a manner almost as destructive as that of the
acqua alta
, the storms, and the encroaching Adriatic.

The activity within Florian's was hardly less frenetic than that in the piazza. Tourists streamed through the salons of the café as if it were another exhibit of the lagoon city and as if patrons like Urbino and the contessa were wax effigies that bore a remarkable resemblance to the living. Boisterous groups sat around the marble-topped tables. Although they had long since finished eating and drinking, they had not yet satisfied themselves with all of the details of the establishment, nor taken enough photographs to prove that they had been within its fabled walls. White-coated waiters, a special breed at Florian's, negotiated everything with grace and a touch of haughtiness as they moved smoothly through the rooms, emitting kissing sounds to attract each other's attention.

Being played out again for yet another summer was the age-old spectacle of beauty and consumption.

The contessa found all this activity exasperating, but Urbino was enjoying it in his peculiar fashion. It was triggering pleasant memories. For it seemed as if it were only yesterday when he had been one of these same wide-eyed, open-mouthed consumers besieging the city in high season and risking an aesthetic headache or worse. And Vivaldi's ‘Summer,' whose lively strains now drifted across the square from Quadri's orchestra, was playing when he had first stepped on the piazza's stones more than twenty years ago.

In fact, the fresh-faced young man with an old
peering into the Chinese Salon reminded Urbino of his former self who had come to Venice from America that long-ago summer and never really left.

Urbino smiled at him. His younger self, however, moved away from the doorway and was swallowed by the throng.

‘Have you heard from Habib?' the contessa asked.

Habib was Urbino's young Moroccan friend. Urbino had helped the painter, who was currently visiting his family in Fes, establish himself in Venice.

‘Yesterday. He's fine. He'll be back at the end of September.'

The contessa reached for another one of the petits fours that had been placed on the table a short time before. Only one now remained on the plate.

‘Too late for the regatta,' she said. ‘He enjoyed it so much last year.'

The Historical Regatta, with its processions and boat races on the Grand Canal, would take place on the first Sunday of September. The contessa was giving a party at her palazzo on the grand waterway for the occasion. Five days ago she had abandoned her cool, quiet villa up in Asolo, where she retreated every summer, to celebrate the Feast of the Redeemer and to make preliminary arrangements for her party.

The contessa looked rested after two months in the hill town. She always managed to shroud her true age in vagueness, inspired by Coco Chanel's philosophy that as one ages, youth must be replaced by mystery. Urbino suspected that she was two decades older than him, but the exact time she had passed the barrier reef of fifty, then sixty in their long friendship had gone unnoted by him and decidedly unremarked by her. He wouldn't have needed his skills as a sleuth, however, not to mention those of a biographer, to establish the minute as well as the year of her birth. But people should be allowed to keep their secrets if it did no one any harm. It was enough for him that the contessa was healthy and splendid at whatever age, her face aided by its bone structure and the make-up obvious only because of its apparent absence.

The two friends knew each other so well that there were hundreds of ways that they showed their feeling by the things they said and did, and didn't say and do. Some Venetians, not too kindly, referred to them as ‘the Anglo-American alliance,' which only amused the pair. In truth, each of them had acquired some traits of the other, and at times the contessa's speech was American-inflected as Urbino's carried echoes of the contessa's. When you added to all this the fact that they were both expatriates, and had a strong overlay of the Italian, you came up with a couple unusual in many ways.

On this sultry afternoon, the contessa was wearing one of the dresses that most became her. Sheer, with a pattern of marigolds on a wine-dark background, it suited not only her gray eyes and honey-brown hair but also the rich colors of the Chinese Salon – even the amber tones of the first flush jasmine in her teacup and the sherry in Urbino's glass.

‘A rather small group,' she said about her regatta party, eyeing the last of the petits fours. ‘Small enough so that everyone can have a place on the
and the loggia to see the procession and the races.'

From its position on the Grand Canal between the Cannaregio Canal and the Rialto Bridge, the Ca' da Capo-Zendrini would provide an excellent view of most of the races and a distant one of the water parade which ended at the great curve of the waterway.

‘Romolo and Perla will be there, of course,' the contessa said, naming a voice teacher and his young wife. The contessa had met Romolo Beato when they were both students at the Venice Music Conservatory, where she had studied the piano before she had married.

‘And there will be Sebastian's Nick,' she added.

This individual was an Englishman who came with the recommendation of the contessa's young cousin Sebastian Neville. Nick Hollander, whom neither the contessa nor Urbino had yet met, was planning to be in Venice through the Regata Storica.

She mentioned more of the invited guests. Most of them belonged to the contessa's social set or were members of the conte's family and her own. Some would be in Venice for the upcoming film festival as well.

Florian's orchestra, which alternated its musical offerings with those of Quadri's and Lavena's, now launched into a Broadway show tune. A middle-aged man and woman arose from their table near the front of the white-canopied stage with its profusion of potted green plants and managed to find enough space, cramped though it was, to execute a few lively steps.

Urbino and the contessa watched the dancing couple.

‘Poor man,' the contessa said after a few moments.

At first her comment puzzled Urbino. Why would she be saying that about the man who was so evidently enjoying himself on barely two square feet of the piazza's stones?

But someone else, from whom she looked away, had caught her attention. It was he who was the source of the sentiment and the sigh she now gave.

This individual was an extraordinarily thin, bald man in his early fifties, dressed impeccably in a well-cut light brown suit and flowing lemon-colored cravat. He pressed a handkerchief against his nose. The edge of the white cloth – though hardly more white than the man's face – was stained with blood.

A man in his early twenties with thick black hair and wearing a sea green cashmere sweater accompanied him. He guided the older man along the arcade in the direction of the Correr Museum, speaking close to his ear. The bald man, steadied by his companion, faltered a step or two.

‘You can always recognize grave illness,' the contessa said. She took the remaining petit four, less out of hunger than the need for its small dose of comfort.

‘At least he has someone to look after him. An Italian, from the look of him.'

The contessa followed with sympathetic eyes the two slowly departing men until they were lost from sight, and cast another glance out into the bustle and merriment of the piazza.

‘Death at the feast.' She gave a little shiver. ‘A young man. Yes, young,
, too young for this. And his fine clothes aren't any help to him, are they? Things never are.'

Urbino touched her hand.

‘But money can make a difference when one is ill,' he said. ‘In some cases it can even buy you better health. Would you like another pot of tea?'

‘What I'd like is for life to be different but there's no chance of that, is there? Yes, I'll have more tea.'

When Urbino looked around for their waiter, he was already approaching their table.

Claudio was a tall, handsome man in his mid-thirties, with black hair threaded slightly with gray and deep-set, piercing eyes. Since he had started to work at Florian's ten years ago, he had become their favorite waiter. Claudio was an opera enthusiast, and had an excellent operatic tenor. The contessa had arranged for him to take voice lessons from Romolo Beato.

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