Charles Dickens.

The works of Charles Dickens (Volume 28) online

. (page 33 of 43)
Online LibraryCharles DickensThe works of Charles Dickens (Volume 28) → online text (page 33 of 43)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

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
clamp 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,
courtiers, 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"^ 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.


I HAD been half afraid to go to Verona, lest it should at all
put me out of conceit with Romeo and Juliet. But, I was
no sooner come into the old market-place, than the misgiving
vanished. It is so fanciful, quaint, and picturesque a place,
formed by such an extraordinary and rich variety of fantastic
buildings, that there could be nothing better at the core of
even this romantic town : scene of one of the most romantic
and beautiful of stories.

It was natural enough, to go straight from the Market-
place, to the House of the Capulets, now degenerated into
a most miserable little inn. Noisy vetturini and muddy
market-carts were disputing possession of the yard, which
was ankle-deep in dirt, with a brood of splashed and be-
spattered geese ; and there was a grim-visaged dog, viciously
panting in a doorway, who would certainly have had Romeo
by the leg, the moment he put it over the wall, if he had
existed and been at large in those times. The orchard fell
into other hands, and was parted off many years ago ; but
there used to be one attached to the house or at all events
there may have been, and the hat (Cappello) the ancient
cognizance of the family, may still be seen, carved in stone,
over the gateway of the yard. The geese, the market-carts,
their drivers, and the dog, were somewhat in the way of


the story, it must be confessed; and it would have been
pleasanter to have found the house empty, and to have been
able to walk through the disused rooms. But the hat was
unspeakably comfortable; and the place where the garden
used to be, hardly less so. Besides, the house is a distrust-
ful, jealous-looking house as one would desire to see, though
of a very moderate size. So I was quite satisfied with it, as
the veritable mansion of old Capulet, and was correspond-
ingly grateful in my acknowledgments to an extremely un-
sentimental middle-aged lady, the Padrona of the Hotel, who
was lounging on the threshold looking at the geese; and
who at least resembled the Capulets in the one particular of
being very great indeed in the " Family * way.

From Juliet's home, to Juliet's tomb, is a transition as
natural to the visitor, as to fair Juliet herself, or to the
proudest Juliet that ever has taught the torches to burn
bright in any time. So, I went off, with a guide, to an old,
old garden, once belonging to an old, old convent, I suppose ;
and being admitted, at a shattered gate, by a bright-eyed
woman who was washing clothes, went down some walks
where fresh plants and young flowers were prettily growing
among fragments of old wall, and ivy-coloured mounds ; and
was shown a little tank, or water-trough, which the bright-
eyed woman drying her arms upon her 'kerchief, called "La
tomba di Giulietta la sfortun&ta." With the best disposition
in the world to believe, I could do no more than believe that
the bright-eyed woman believed ; so I gave her that much
credit, and her customary fee in ready money. It was a
pleasure, rather than a disappointment, that Juliet's resting-
place was forgotten. However consolatory it may have been
to Yorick's Ghost, to hear the feet upon the pavement over-
head, and, twenty times a day, the repetition of his name, it
is better for Juliet to lie out of the track of touri^s, and to
have no visitors but such as come to graves in spring-rain,
and sweet air, and sunshine.

Pleasant Verona! With its beautiful old palaces, a ml


charming country in the distance, seen from terrace walks,
and stately, balustraded galleries. With its Roman gates,
still spanning the fair street, and casting, on the sunlight of
to-day, the shade of fifteen hundred years ago. With its
marble-fitted churches, lofty towers, rich architecture, and
quaint old quiet thoroughfares, where shouts of Montagues
and Capulets once resounded,

And made Verona's ancient citizens

Cast by their grave, beseeming ornaments,

To wield old partizans.

With its fast-rushing river, picturesque old bridge, great
castle, waving cypresses, and prospect so delightful, and so
cheerful ! Pleasant Verona !

In the midst of it, in the Piazza di Bra a spirit of old
time among the familiar realities of the passing hour is the
great Roman Amphitheatre. So well preserved, and carefully
maintained, that every row of seats is there, unbroken. Over
certain of the arches, the old Roman numerals may yet be
seen ; and there are corridors, and staircases, and subterranean
passages for beasts, and winding ways, above ground and
below, as when the fierce thousands hurried in and out,
intent upon the bloody shows of the arena. Nestling in
some of the shadows and hollow places of the walls, now,
are smiths with their forges, and a few small dealers of one
kind or other ; and there are green weeds, and leaves, and
grass, upon the parapet. But little else is greatly changed.

When I had traversed all about it, with great interest,
and had gone up to the topmost round of seats, and turning
from the lovely panorama closed in by the distant Alps,
looked down into the building, it seemed to lie before me
like the inside of a prodigious hat of plaited straw, with an
enormously broad brim and a shallow crown ; the plaits
being represented by the four-and-forty rows of seats. The
comparison is a homely and fantastic one, in sober remem-
brance and on paper, but it was irresistibly suggested at the
moment, nevertheless.


An equestrian troop had been there, a short time before
the same troop, I dare say, that appeared to the old lady in
the church at Modena and had scooped out a little ring
at one end of the area ; where their performances had taken
place, and where the marks of their horses' feet were still
fresh. I could not but picture to myself, a handful of spec-
tators gathered together on one or two of the old stone
seats, and a spangled Cavalier being gallant, or a Policinello
funny, with the grim walls looking on. Above all, I thought
how strangely those Roman mutes would gaze upon the
favourite comic scene of the travelling English, where a
British nobleman (Lord John), with a very loose stomach :
dressed in a blue-tailed coat down to his heels, bright yellow
breeches, and a white hat : comes abroad, riding double on a
rearing horse, with an English lady (Lady Betsy) in a straw
bonnet and green veil, and a red spencer; and who always
carries a gigantic reticule, and a put-up parasol.

I walked through and through the town all the rest of
the day, and could have walked there until now, I think. In
one place, there was a very pretty modem theatre, where
they had just performed the opera (always popular in Verona)
of Romeo and Juliet. In another there was a collection,
under a colonnade, of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan remains,
presided over by an ancient man who might have been an
Etruscan relic himself; for he was not strong enough to open
the iron gate, when he had unlocked it, and had neither voice
enough to be audible when he described the curiosities, nor
sight enough to see them : he was so very old. In another
place, there was a gallery of pictures : so abominably bad,
that it was quite delightful to see them mouldering away.
But anywhere: in the churches, among the palaces, in the
streets, on the bridge, or down beside the river: it was
always pleasant Verona, and in my remembrance always
will be.

I read Romeo and Juliet in my own room at the inn that
night of course, no Englishman had ever read it there,


before and set out for Mantua next day at sunrise, repeat-
ing to myself (in the coupe of an omnibus, and next to the
conductor, who was reading the Mysteries of Paris),

There is no world without Verona's walls
But purgatory, torture, hell itself.
Hence-banished is banished from the world,
And world's exile is death

which reminded me that Romeo was only banished five-and-
twenty miles after all, and rather disturbed my confidence in
his energy and boldness.

Was the way to Mantua as beautiful, in his time, I
wonder ! Did it wind through pasture land as green,
bright with the same glancing streams, and dotted with
fresh clumps of graceful trees ! Those purple mountains lay
on the horizon, then, for certain; and the dresses of these
peasant girls, who wear a great, knobbed, silver pin like an
English " life-preserver " through their hair behind, can hardly
be much changed. The hopeful feeling of so bright a
morning, and so exquisite a sunrise, can have been no
stranger, even to an exiled lover's breast; and Mantua itself
must have broken on him in the prospect, with its towers,
and walls, and water, pretty much as on a common-place
and matrimonial omnibus. He made the same sharp twists
and turns, perhaps, over two rumbling drawbridges ; passed
through the like long, covered, wooden bridge ; and leaving
the marshy water behind, approached the rusty gate of
stagnant Mantua.

If ever a man were suited to his place of residence, and his
place of residence to him, the lean Apothecary and Mantua
came together in a perfect fitness of things. It may have
been more stirring then, perhaps. If so, the Apothecary was
a man in advance of his time, and knew what Mantua would
be, in eighteen hundred and forty- four. He fasted much,
and that assisted him in his foreknowledge.

I put up at the Hotel of the Golden Lion, and was in my
own room arranging plans with the brave Courier, when there


came a modest little tap at the door, which opened on an
outer gallery surrounding a court-yard; and an intensely
shabby little man looked in, to inquire if the gentleman would
have a Cicerone to show the town. His face was so very
wistful and anxious, in the half-opened doorway, and there
was so much poverty expressed in his faded suit and little
pinched hat, and in the thread-bare worsted glove with which
he held it not expressed the less, because these were evidently
his genteel clothes, hastily slipped on that I would as soon
have trodden on him as dismissed him. I engaged him on
the instant, and he stepped in directly.

While I finished the discussion in which I was engaged, he
stood, beaming by himself in a corner, making a feint of
brushing my hat with his arm. If his fee had been as many
napoleons as it was francs, there could not have shot over the
twilight of his shabbiness such a gleam of sun, as lighted up
the whole man, now that he was hired.

" Well ! " said I, when I was ready, " shall we go out
now ? "

" If the gentleman pleases. It is a beautiful day. A little
fresh, but charming; altogether charming. The gentleman
will allow me to open the door. This is the Inn Yard. The
court-yard of the Golden Lion ! The gentleman will please
to mind his footing on the stairs."

We were now in the street.

" This is the street of the Golden Lion. This, the outside
of the Golden Lion. The interesting window up there, on
the first Piano, where the pane of glass is broken, is the
window of the gentleman's chamber ! "

Having viewed all these remarkable objects, I inquired if
there were much to see in Mantua.

" Well ! Truly, no. Not much ! So, so," he said, shrug-
ging his shoulders apologetically.

" Many churches ? "

"No. Nearly all suppressed by the French."

" Monasteries or convents ? "


" No. The French again ! Nearly all suppressed by

"Much business? 1 '

"Very little business."

" Many strangers ? "

Ah Heaven!"

I thought he would have fainted.

"Then, when we have seen the two large churches yonder,
what shall we do next ? " said I.

He looked up the street, and down the street, and rubbed
his chin timidly ; and then said, glancing in my face as if a
light had broken on his mind, yet with a humble appeal to
my forbearance that was perfectly irresistible :

" We can take a little turn about the town, Signore ! "
(Si puo far 'un piccolo giro della citta).

It was impossible to be anything but delighted with the
proposal, so we set off together in great good-humour. In
the relief of his mind, he opened his heart, and gave up as
much of Mantua as a Cicerone could.

" One must eat, 1 ' he said ; " but, bah ! it was a dull place,
without doubt ! "

He made as much as possible of the Basilica of Santa
Andrea a noble church and of an inclosed portion of the
pavement, about which tapers were burning, and a few people
kneeling, and under which is said to be preserved the San-
greal of the old Romances. This church disposed of, and
another after it (the cathedral of San Pietro), we went to the
Museum, which was shut up. " It was all the same, 11 he said.
" Bah ! There was not much inside ! " Then, we went to see
the Piazza del Diavolo, built by the Devil (for no particular
purpose) in a single night ; then, the Piazza Virgiliana ; then,
the statue of Virgil our Poet, 'my little friend said, plucking
up a spirit, for the moment, and putting his hat a little on
one side. Then, we went to a dismal sort of farm-yard, by
which a picture-gallery was approached. The moment the
gate of this retreat was opened, some five hundred .geese


came waddling round us, stretching out their necks, and
clamouring in the most hideous manner, as if they were
ejaculating, ** Oh ! here's somebody come to see the Pictures !
Don't go up! Don't go up!" While we went up, they
waited very quietly about the door in a crowd, cackling to
one another occasionally, in a subdued tone ; but the instant
we appeared again, their necks came out like telescopes, and
setting up a great noise, which meant, I have no doubt,
" What, you would go, would you ! What do you think of
it ! How do you like It ! " they attended us to the outer gate,
and cast us forth, derisively, into Mantua.

The geese who saved the Capitol, were, as compared to
these, Pork to the learned Pig. What a gallery it was ! I
would take their opinion on a question of art, in preference
to the discourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Now that we were standing in the street, after being thus
ignominiously escorted thither, my little friend was plainly
reduced to the " piccolo giro," or little circuit of the town,
he had formerly proposed. But my suggestion that we should
visit the Palazzo Te (of which I had heard a great deal, as
a strange wild place) imparted new life to him, and away
we went.

The secret of the length of Midas's ears, would have been
more extensively known, if that servant of his, who whispered
it to the reeds, had lived in Mantua, where there are reeds
and rushes enough to have published it to all the world. The
Palazzo Te stands in a swamp, among this sort of vegetation ;
and is, indeed, as singular a place as I ever saw.

Not for its dreariness, though it is very dreary. Nor for
its dampness, though it is very damp. Nor for its desolate
condition, though it is as desolate and neglected as house can
be. But chiefly for the unaccountable nightmares with which
its interior has been decorated (among other subjects of more
delicate execution), by Giulio Romano. There is a leering
Giant over a certain chimney-piece, and there arc dozens of
Giants (Titans warring with Jove) on the walls of another


room, so inconceivably ugly and grotesque, that it is marvel-
lous how any man can have imagined such creatures. In the
chamber in which they abound, these monsters, with swollen
faces and cracked cheeks, and every kind of distortion of look
and limb, are depicted as staggering under the weight of
falling buildings, and being overwhelmed in the ruins ; up-
heaving masses of rock, and burying themselves beneath ;
vainly striving to sustain the pillars of heavy roofs that
topple down upon their heads ; and, in a word, undergoing
and doing every kind of mad and demoniacal destruction.
The figures are immensely large, and exaggerated to the
utmost pitch of uncouthness ; the colouring is harsh and dis-
agreeable ; and the whole effect more like (I should imagine)
a violent rush of blood to the head of the spectator, than any
real picture set before him by the hand of an artist. This
apoplectic performance was shown by a sickly-looking woman,
whose appearance was referable, I dare say, to the bad air of
the marshes ; but it was difficult to help feeling as if she were
too much haunted by the Giants, and they were frightening
her to death, all alone in that exhausted cistern of a Palace,

Online LibraryCharles DickensThe works of Charles Dickens (Volume 28) → online text (page 33 of 43)