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V.《V》


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Chapter Seven

 She hangs on the western wall

 

 Dudley Eigenvalue, D.D.S., browsed among treasures in his Park Avenue  office/residence. Mounted on black velvet in a locked mahogany case,  showpiece of the office, was a set of false dentures, each tooth a different  precious metal. The upper right canine was pure titanium and for Eigenvalue  the focal point of the set. He had seen the original sponge at a foundry  near Colorado Springs a year ago, having flown there in the private plane of  one Clayton ("Bloody") Chiclitz. Chiclitz of Yoyodyne, one of the biggest  defense contractors on the east coast, with subsidiaries all over the  country. He and Eigenvalue were part of the same Circle. That was what the  enthusiast, Stencil, said. And believed.

For those who keep an eye on such things, bright little flags had begun to  appear toward the end of Eisenhower's first term, fluttering bravely in  history's gay turbulence, signaling that a new and unlikely profession was  gaining moral ascendancy. Back around the turn of the century,  psychoanalysis had usurped from the priesthood the role of father-confessor.  Now, it seemed, the analyst in his turn was about to be deposed by, of all  people, the dentist.

It appeared actually to have been little more than a change in nomenclature.  Appointments became sessions, profound statements about oneself came to be  prefaced by "My dentist says . . ." Psychodontia, like its predecessors,  developed a jargon: you called neurosis "malocclusion," oral, anal and  genital stages "deciduous dentition," id "pulp" and superego "enamel."

The pulp is soft and laced with little blood vessels and nerves. The enamel,  mostly calcium, is inanimate. These were the it and I psychodontia had to  deal with. The hard, lifeless I covered up the warm, pulsing it; protecting  and sheltering.

Eigenvalue, enchanted by the titanium's dull spark, brooded on Stencil's  fantasy (thinking of it with conscious effort as a distal amalgam: an alloy  of the illusory flow and gleam of mercury with the pure truth of gold or  silver, filling a breach in the protective enamel, far from the root).

Cavities in the teeth occur for good reason, Eigenvalue reflected. But even  if there are several per tooth, there's no conscious organization there  against the life of the pulp, no conspiracy. Yet we have men like Stencil,  who must go about grouping the world's random caries into cabals.

Intercom blinked gently. "Mr. Stencil," it said. So. What pretext this time.  He'd spent three appointments getting his teeth cleaned. Gracious and  flowing, Dr. Eigenvalue entered the private waiting room. Stencil rose to  meet him, stammering. "Toothache?" the doctor suggested, solicitous.

"Nothing wrong with the teeth," Stencil got out. "You must talk. You must  both drop pretense."

From behind his desk, in the office, Eigenvalue said, "You're a bad  detective and a worse spy."

"It isn't espionage," Stencil protested, "but the Situation is intolerable."  A term he'd learned from his father. "They're abandoning the Alligator  Patrol. Slowly, so as not to attract attention."

"You think you've frightened them?"

"Please." The man was ashen. He produced a pipe and pouch and set about  scattering tobacco on the wall-to-wall carpeting.

"You presented the Alligator Patrol to me," said Eigenvalue, "in a humorous  light. An interesting conversation piece, while my hygienist was in your  mouth. Were you waiting for her hands to tremble? For me to go all pale? Had  it been myself and a drill, such a guilt reaction might have been very, very  uncomfortable." Stencil had filled the pipe and was lighting it. "You've  conceived somewhere the notion that I am intimate with the details of a  conspiracy. In a world such as you inhabit, Mr. Stencil, any cluster of  phenomena can be a conspiracy. So no doubt your suspicion is correct. But  why consult me? Why not the Encyclopaedia Britannica? It knows more than I  about any phenomena you should ever have interest in. Unless, of course,  you're curious about dentistry." How weak he looked, sitting there. How old  was he - fifty-five - and he looked seventy. Whereas Eigenvalue at roughly  the same age looked thirty-five. Young as he felt. "Which field?" he asked  playfully. "Peridontia, oral surgery, orthodontia? Prosthetics?"

"Suppose it was prosthetics," taking Eigenvalue by surprise. Stencil was  building a protective curtain of aromatic pipe smoke, to be inscrutable  behind. But his voice had somehow regained a measure of self-possession.

"Come," said Eigenvalue. They entered a rear office, where the museum was.  Here were a pair of forceps once handled by Fauchard; a first edition of The  Surgeon Dentist, Paris, 1728; a chair sat in by patients of Chapin Aaron  Harris; a brick from one of the first buildings of the Baltimore college of  Dental Surgery. Eigenvalue led Stencil to the mahogany case.

"Whose," said Stencil, looking at the dentures.

"Like Cinderella's prince," Eigenvalue smiled, "I'm still looking for the  jaw to fit these."

"And Stencil, possibly. It would be something she'd wear."

"I made them," said Eigenvalue. "Anybody you'd be looking for would never  have seen them. Only you, I and a few other privileged have seen them."

"How does Stencil know."

"That I'm telling the truth? Tut, Mr. Stencil."

The false teeth in the case smiled too, twinkling as if in reproach.

Back in the office, Eigenvalue, to see what he could see, inquired: "Who  then is V.?"

But the conversational tone didn't take Stencil aback, he didn't look  surprised that the dentist knew of his obsession. "Psychodontia has its  secrets and so does Stencil," Stencil answered. "But most important, so does  V. She's yielded him only the poor skeleton of a dossier. Most of what he  has is inference. He doesn't know who she is, nor what she is. He's trying  to find out. As a legacy from his father."

The afternoon curled outside, with only a little wind to stir it. Stencil's  words seemed to fall insubstantial inside a cube no wider than Eigenvalue's  desk. The dentist kept quiet as Stencil told how his father had come to hear  of the girl V. When he'd finished, Eigenvalue said, "You followed up, of  course. On-the-spot investigation."

"Yes. But found out hardly more than Stencil has told you." Which was the  case. Florence only a few summers ago had seemed crowded with the same  tourists as at the turn of the century. But V., whoever she was, might have  been swallowed in the airy Renaissance spaces of that city, assumed into the  fabric of any of a thousand Great Paintings, for all Stencil was able to  determine. He had discovered, however, what was pertinent to his purpose:  that she'd been connected, though perhaps only tangentially, with one of  those grand conspiracies or foretastes of Armageddon which seemed to have  captivated all diplomatic sensibilities in the years preceding the Great  War. V. and a conspiracy. Its particular shape governed only by the surface  accidents of history at the time.

Perhaps history this century, thought Eigenvalue, is rippled with gathers in  its fabric such that if we are situated, as Stencil seemed to be, at the  bottom of a fold, it's impossible to determine warp, woof or pattern  anywhere else. By virtue, however, of existing in one gather it is assumed  there are others, compartmented off into sinuous cycles each of which come  to assume greater importance than the weave itself and destroy any  continuity. Thus it is that we are charmed by the funny-looking automobiles  of the '30's, the curious fashions of the '20's, the peculiar moral habits  of our grandparents. We produce and attend musical comedies about them and  are conned into a false memory, a phony nostalgia about what they were. We  are accordingly lost to any sense of a continuous tradition. Perhaps if we  lived on a crest, things would be different. We could at least see.

 

I

 In April of 1899 young Evan Godolphin, daft with the spring and sporting a  costume too Esthetic for such a fat boy, pranced into Florence. Camouflaged  by a gorgeous sunshower which had burst over the city at three in the  afternoon, his face was the color of a freshly-baked pork pie and as  noncommittal. Alighting at the Stazione Centrale he flagged down an open cab  with his umbrella of cerise sills, roared the address of his hotel to a  Cook's luggage agent and, with a clumsy entrechat deux and a jolly-ho to no  one in particular, leaped in and was driven earoling away down Via dei  Panzani. He had come to meet his old father, Captain Hugh, F.R.G.S. and  explorer of the Antarctic - at least such was the ostensible reason. He was,  however, the sort of ne'er-do-well who needs no reason for anything,  ostensible or otherwise. The family called him Evan the Oaf. In return, in  his more playful moments, he referred to all other Godolphins as The  Establishment. But like his other utterances, there was no rancor here: in  his early youth he had looked aghast at Dickens's Fat Boy as a challenge to  his faith in all fat boys as innately Nice Fellows, and subsequently worked  as hard at contradicting that insult to the breed as he did at being a  ne'er-do-well. For despite protests from the Establishment to the contrary,  shiftlessness did not come easily to Evan. He was not, though fond of his  father, much of a conservative; for as long as he could remember he had  labored beneath the shadow of Captain Hugh, a hero of the Empire, resisting  any compulsion to glory which the name Godolphin might have implied for  himself. But this was a characteristic acquired from the age, and Evan was  too nice a fellow not to turn with the century. He had dallied for a while  with the idea of getting a commission and going to sea; not to follow in his  old father's wake but simply to get away from the Establishment. His  adolescent mutterings in times of family stress were all prayerful, exotic  syllables: Bahrein, Dar es Salaam, Samarang. But in his second year at  Dartmouth, he was expelled for leading a Nihilist group called the League of  the Red Sunrise, whose method of hastening the revolution was to hold mad  and drunken parties beneath the Commodore's window. Flinging up their  collective arms at last in despair, the family exiled him to the Continent,  hoping, possibly, that he would stage some prank harmful enough to society  to have him put away in a foreign prison.

At Deauville, recuperating after two months of goodnatured lechery in Paris,  he'd returned to his hotel one evening 17,000 francs to the good and  grateful to a bay named Cher Ballon, to find a telegram from Captain Hugh  which said; "Hear you were sacked. If you need someone to talk to I am at  Piazza della Signoria 5 eighth floor. I should like very much to see you  son. Unwise to say too much in telegram. Vheissu. You understand. FATHER."

Vheissu, of course. A summons he couldn't ignore, Vheissu. He understood.  Hadn't it been their only nexus for longer than Evan could remember; had it  not stood preeminent in his catalogue of outlandish regions where the  Establishment held no sway? It was something which, to his knowledge, Evan  alone shared with his father, though he himself had stopped believing in the  place around the age of sixteen. His first impression on reading the wire -  that Captain Hugh was senile at last, or raving, or both - was soon replaced  by a more charitable opinion. Perhaps, Evan reasoned, his recent expedition  to the South had been too much for the old boy. But on route to Pisa, Evan  had finally begun to feel disquieted at the tone of the thing. He'd taken of  late to examining everything in print - menus, railway timetables, posted  advertisements for literary merit; he belonged to a generation of young men  who no longer called their fathers pater because of an understandable  confusion with the author of The Renaissance, and was sensitive to things  like tone. And this had a je ne sais quoi de sinistre about it which sent  pleasurable chills racing along his spinal column. His imagination ran riot.  Unwise to say too much in telegram: intimations of a plot, a cabal grand and  mysterious: combined with that appeal to their only common possession.  Either by itself would have made Evan ashamed: ashamed at hallucinations  belonging in a spy thriller, even more painfully ashamed for an attempt at  something which should have existed but did not, based only on the sharing  long ago of a bedside story. But both, together, were like a parlay of  horses, capable of a whole arrived at by same operation more alien than  simple addition of parts.

He would see his father. In spite of the heart's vagrancy, the cerise  umbrella, the madcap clothes. Was rebellion in his blood? He'd never been  troubled enough to wonder. Certainly the League of the Red Sunrise had been  no more than a jolly lark; he couldn't yet become serious over politics. But  he had a mighty impatience with the older generation, which is almost as  good as open rebellion. He became more bored with talk of Empire the further  he lumbered upward out of the slough of adolescence; shunned every hint of  glory like the sound of a leper's rattle. China, the Sudan, the East Indies,  Vheissu had served their purpose: given him a sphere of influence roughly  congruent with that of his skull, private colonies of the imagination whose  borders were solidly defended against the Establishment's incursions or  depredations. He wanted to be left alone, never to "do well" in his own way,  and would defend that oaf's integrity to the last lazy heartbeat.

The cab swung left, crossing the tram tracks with two bone-rattling jolts,  and then right again into Via dei Vechietti. Evan shook four fingers in the  air and swore at the driver, who smiled absently. A tram came blithering up  behind them; drew abreast. Evan turned his head and saw a young girl in  dimity blinking huge eyes at him.

"Signorina," he cried, "ah, brava fanciulla, sei tu inglesa?"

She blushed and began to study the embroidery on her parasol. Evan stood up  on the cab's seat, postured, winked, began to sing Deh, vieni alla finestra  from Don Giovanni. Whether or not she understood Italian, the song had a  negative effect: she withdrew from the window and hid among a mob of  Italians standing in the center aisle. Evan's driver chose this moment to  lash the horses into a gallop and swerve across the tracks again, in front  of the tram. Evan, still singing, lost his balance and fell halfway over the  back of the carriage. He managed to catch hold of the boot's top with one  flailing arm and after a deal of graceless floundering to haul himself back  in. By this time they were in Via Pecori. He looked back and saw the girl  getting out of the tram. He sighed as his cab bounced on past Giotto's  Campanile, still wondering if she were English.

 

II

 In front of a wine shop on the Ponte Vecchio sat Signor Mantissa and his  accomplice in crime, a seedy-looking Calabrese named Cesare. Both were  drinking Broglio wine and feeling unhappy. It had occurred to Cesare  sometime during the rain that he was a steamboat. Now that the rain was only  a slight drizzle the English tourists were beginning to emerge once more  from the shops lining the bridge, and Cesare was announcing his discovery to  those who came within earshot. He would emit short blasts across the mouth  of the wine bottle to encourage the illusion. "Toot," he would go, "toot.  Vaporetto, io."

Signor Mantissa was not paying attention. His five feet three rested angular  on the folding chair, a body small, well-wrought and somehow precious, as if  it were the forgotten creation of any goldsmith - even Cellini - shrouded  now in dark serge and waiting to be put up for auction. His eyes were  streaked and rimmed with the pinkness of what seemed to be years of  lamenting. Sunlight, bouncing off the Arno, off the fronts of shops,  fractured into spectra by the falling rain, seemed to tangle or lodge in his  blond hair, eyebrows, mustache, turning that face to a mask of inaccessible  ecstasy; contradicting the sorrowing and weary eyeholes. You would be drawn  inevitably again to these eyes, linger as you might have on the rest of the  face: any Visitors' Guide to Signor Mantissa must accord them an asterisk  denoting especial interest. Though offering no clue to their enigma; for  they reflected a free-floating sadness, unfocused, indeterminate: a woman,  the casual tourist might think at first, be almost convinced until some more  catholic light moving in and out of a web of capillaries would make him not  so sure. What then? politics, perhaps. Thinking of gentle-eyed Mazzini with  his lambent dreams, the observer would sense frailness, a poet-liberal. But  if he kept watching long enough the plasma behind those eyes would soon run  through every fashionable permutation of grief - financial trouble,  declining health, destroyed faith, betrayal, impotence, loss - until  eventually it would dawn on our tourist that he had been attending no wake  after all: rather a street-long festival of sorrow with no booth the same,  no exhibit offering anything solid enough to merit lingering at.

The reason was obvious and disappointing: simply that Signor Mantissa  himself had been through them all, each booth was a permanent exhibit in  memory of some time in his life when there had been a blond seamstress in  Lyons, or an abortive plot to smuggle tobacco over the Pyrenees, or a minor  assassination attempt in Belgrade. All his reversals had occurred, had been  registered: he had assigned each one equal weight, had learned nothing from  any of them except that they would happen again. Like Machiavelli he was in  exile, and visited by shadows of rhythm and decay. He mused inviolate by the  serene river of Italian pessimism, and all men were corrupt: history would  continue to recapitulate the same patterns. There was hardly ever a dossier  on him, wherever in the world his tiny, nimble feet should happen to walk.  No one in authority seemed to care. He belonged to that inner circle of  deracinated seers whose eyesight was clouded over only by occasional tears,  whose outer rim was tangent to rims enclosing the Decadents of England and  France, the Generation of '98 in Spain, for whom the continent of Europe was  like a gallery one is familiar with but long weary of, useful now only as  shelter from the rain, or some obscure pestilence.

Cesare drank from the wine bottle. He sang:

 Il piove, dolor mia  Ed anch'io piango . . .

"No," said Signor Mantissa, waving away the bottle. "No more for me till he  arrives."

"There are two English ladies," Cesare cried. "I will sing to them."

"For God's sake -"

 Vedi, donna vezzosa, questo poveretto,  Sempre cantante d'amore come -

"Be quiet, can't you."

"-un vaporetto." Triumphantly he boomed a hundred-cycle note across the  Ponte Vecchio. The English ladies cringed and passed on.

After a while Signor Mantissa reached under his chair, coming up with a new  fiasco of wine.

"Here is the Gaucho," he said. A tall, lumbering person in a wideawake hat  loomed over them, blinking curiously.

Biting his thumb irritably at Cesare, Signor Mantissa found a corkscrew;  gripped the bottle between his knees, drew the cork. The Gaucho straddled a  chair backwards and took a long swallow from the wine bottle.

"Broglio," Signor Mantissa said, "the finest."

The Gaucho fiddled absently with his hatbrim. Then burst out: "I'm a man of  action, signor, I'd rather not waste time. Allora. To Business. I have  considered your plan. I asked for no details last night. I dislike details.  As it was, the few you gave me were superfluous. I'm sorry, I have many  objections. It is much too subtle. There are too many things that can go  wrong. How many people are in it now? You, myself and this lout." Cesare  beamed. "Two too many. You should have done it all alone. You mentioned  wanting to bribe one of the attendants. It would make four. How many more  will have to be paid off, consciences set at ease. Chances arise that  someone can betray us to the guardie before this wretched Business is done?"

Signor Mantissa drank, wiped his mustaches, smiled painfully. "Cesare is  able to make the necessary contacts," he protested, "he's below suspicion,  no one notices him. The river barge to Pisa, the boat from there to Nice,  who should have arranged these if not -"

"You, my friend," the Gaucho said menacingly, prodding Signor Mantissa in  the ribs with the corkscrew. "You, alone. Is it necessary to bargain with  the captains of barges and boats? No: it is necessary only to get on board,  to stow away. From there on in, assert yourself. Be a man. If the person in  authority objects -" He twisted the corkscrew savagely, furling several  square inches of Signor Mantissa's white linen shirt around it. "Capisci?"

Signor Mantissa, skewered like a butterfly, flapped his arms, grimaced,  tossed his golden head.

"Certo io," he finally managed to say, "of course, signor commendatore, to  the military mind . . . direct action, of course . . . but in such a  delicate matter . . ."

"Pah!" The Gaucho disengaged the corkscrew, sat glaring at Signor Mantissa.  The rain had stopped, the sun was setting. The bridge was thronged with  tourists, returning to their hotels on the Lungarno. Cesare gazed benignly  at them. The three sat in silence until the Gaucho began to talk, calmly but  with an undercurrent of passion.

"Last year in Venezuela it was not like this. Nowhere in America was it like  this, There were no twistings, no elaborate maneuverings. The conflict was  simple: we wanted liberty, they didn't want us to have it. Liberty or  slavery, my Jesuit friend, two words only. It needed none of your extra  phrases, your tracts, none of your moralizing, no essays on political  justice. We knew where we stood, and where one day we would stand. And when  it came to the fighting we were equally as direct. You think you are being  Machiavellian with all these artful tactics. You once heard him speak of the  lion and the fox and now your devious brain can see only the fox. What has  happened to the strength, the aggressiveness, the natural nobility of the  lion? What sort of an age is this where a man becomes one's enemy only when  his back is turned?"

Signor Mantissa had regained some of his composure. "It is necessary to have  both, of course," he said placatingly. "Which is why I chose you as a  collaborator, commendatore. You are the lion, I -" humbly - "a very small  fox."

"And he is the pig," the Gaucho roared, clapping Cesare on the shoulder.  "Bravo! A fine cadre."

"Pig," said Cesare happily, making a grab for the wine bottle.

"No more," the Gaucho said. "The signor here has taken the trouble to build  us all a house of cards. Much as I dislike living in it, I won't permit your  totally drunken breath to blow it over in indiscreet talk." He turned back  to Signor Mantissa. "No," he continued, "you are not a true Machiavellian.  He was an apostle of freedom for all men. Who can read the last Chapter of  Il Principe and doubt his desire for a republican and united Italy? Right  over there -" he gestured toward the left bank, the sunset "he lived,  suffered under the Medici. They were the foxes, and he hated them. His final  exhortation is for a lion, an embodiment of power, to arise in Italy and run  all foxes to earth forever. His morality was as simple and honest as my own  and my comrades' in South America. And now, under his banner, you wish to  perpetuate the detestable cunning of the Medici, who suppressed freedom in  this very city for so long. I am dishonored irrevocably, merely having  associated with you."

"If -" again the pained smile - "if the commendatore has perhaps some  alternative plan, we should be happy . . ."

"Of course there's another plan," the Gaucho retorted, "the only plan. Here,  you have a map?" Eagerly Signor Mantissa produced from an inside pocket a  folded diagram, hand-sketched in pencil. The Gaucho peered at it  distastefully. "So that is the Uffizi," he said. "I've never been inside the  place. I suppose I shall have to, to get the feel of the terrain. And where  is the objective?"

Signor Mantissa pointed to the lower left-hand corner. "The Sala di Lorenzo  Monaco," he said. "Here, you see. I have already had a key made for the main  entrance. Three main corridors: east, west, and a short one on the south  connecting them. From the west corridor, number three, we enter a smaller  one here, marked 'Ritratti diversi.' At the end, on the right, is a single  entrance to the gallery. She hangs on the western wall."

"A single entrance which is also the single exit," the Gaucho said. "Not  good. A dead end. And to leave the building itself one must go all the way  back up the eastern corridor to the steps leading to Piazza della Signoria."

"There is a lift," said Signor Mantissa, "leading to a passage which lets  one out in the Palazzo Vecchio."

"A lift," the Gaucho sneered. "About what I'd expect from you." He leaned  forward, baring his teeth. "You already propose to commit an act of supreme  idiocy by walking all the way down one corridor, along another, halfway up a  third, down one more into a cul-de-sac and then out again the same way you  came in. A distance of -" he measured rapidly - "some six hundred meters,  with guards ready to jump out at you every time you pass a gallery or turn a  corner. But even this isn't confining enough for you. You must take a lift."

"Besides which," Cesare put in, "she's so big."

The Gaucho clenched one fist. "How big."

"175 by 279 centimeters," admitted Signor Mantissa.

"Capo di minghe!" The Gaucho sat back, shaking his head. With an obvious  effort at controlling his temper, he addressed Signor Mantissa. "I'm not a  small man," he explained patiently. "In fact I am rather a large man. And  broad. I am built like a lion. Perhaps it's a racial trait. I come from the  north, and there may be some tedesco blood in these veins. The tedeschi are  taller than the Latin races. Taller and broader. Perhaps someday this body  will run to fat, but now it is all muscle. So, I am big, non e vero? Good.  Then let me inform you -" his voice rising in violent crescendo - "that  there would be room enough under your damnable Botticelli for me and the  fattest whore in Florence, with plenty left over for her elephant of a  mother to act as chaperone! How in God's name do you intend to walk 300  meters with that? Will it be hidden in your pocket?"

"Calm, commendatore," Signor Mantissa pleaded. "Anyone might be listening.  It is a detail, I assure you. Provided for. The florist Cesare visited last  night -"

"Florist. Florist: you've let a florist into your confidence. Wouldn't it  make you happier to publish your intentions in the evening newspapers?"

"But he is safe. He is only providing the tree."

"The tree."

"The Judas tree. Small: some four meters, no taller. Cesare has been at work  all morning, hollowing out the trunk. So we shall have to execute our plans  soon, before the purple flowers die."

"Forgive what may be my appalling stupidity," the Gaucho said, "but as I  understand it, you intend to roll up the Birth of Venus, hide it in the  hollow trunk of a Judas tree, and carry it some 300 meters, past an army of  guards who will soon be aware of its theft, and out into Piazza della  Signoria, where presumably you will then lose yourself in the crowds?"

"Precisely. Early evening would be the best time -"

"A rivederci."

Signor Mantissa leaped to his feet. "I beg you, commendatore," he cried.  "Aspetti. Cesare and I will be disguised as workmen, you see. The Uffizi is  being redecorated, there will be nothing unusual -"

"Forgive me," the Gaucho said, "you are both lunatics."

"But your cooperation is essential. We need a lion, someone skilled in  military tactics, in strategy . . ."

"Very well." The Gaucho retraced his steps and stood towering over Signor  Mantissa. "I suggest this: the Sala di Lorenzo Monaco has windows, does it  not?"

"Heavily barred."

"No matter. A bomb, a small bomb, which I'll provide. Anyone who tries to  interfere will be disposed of by force. The window should let us out next to  the Posta Centrale. Your rendezvous with the barge?"

"Under the Ponte San Trinita."

"Some four or five hundred yards up the Lungamo. We can commandeer a  carriage. Have your barge waiting at midnight tonight. That's my proposal.  Take it or leave it. I shall be at the Uffizi till supper time,  reconnoitering. From then till nine, at Home making the bomb. After that, at  Scheissvogel's, the birriere. Let me know by ten."

"But the tree, commendatore. It cost close to 200 lire."

"Damn your tree." With a smart about-face the Gaucho turned and strode away  in the direction of the right bank.

The sun hovered over the Arno. Its declining rays tinged the liquid  gathering in Signor Mantissa's eyes to a pale red, as if the wine he'd drunk  were overflowing, watered down with tears.

Cesare let a consoling arm fall round Signor Mantissa's thin shoulders. "It  will go well," he said. "The Gaucho is a barbarian. He's been in the jungles  too long. He doesn't understand."

"She is so beautiful," Signor Mantissa whispered.

"Davvero. And I love her too. We are comrades in love." Signor Mantissa did  not answer. After a little while he reached for the wine.

 

III

 Miss Victoria Wren, late of Lardwick-in-the-Fen, Yorks., recently  self-proclaimed a citizen of the world, knelt devoutly in the front pew of a  church just off Via dello Studio. She was saying an act of contrition. An  hour before, in the Via dei Vecchietti, she'd had impure thoughts while  watching a fat English boy cavort in a cab; she was now being heartily sorry  for them. At nineteen she'd already recorded a serious affair: having the  autumn before in Cairo seduced one Goodfellow, an agent of the British  Foreign Office. Such is the resilience of the young that his face was  already forgotten. Afterward they'd both been quick to blame the violent  emotions which arise during any tense international situation (this was at  the time of the Fashoda crisis) for her deflowering. Now, six or seven  months later, she found it difficult to determine how much she had in fact  planned, how much had been out of her control. The liaison had in due course  been discovered by her widowed father Sir Alastair, with whom she and her  sister Mildred were traveling. There were words, sobbings, threats, insults,  late one afternoon under the trees in the Ezbekiyeh garden, with little  Mildred gazing struck and tearful at it all while God knew what scars were  carved into her. At length Victoria had ended it with a glacial good-bye and  a vow never to return to England; Sir Alastair had nodded and taken Mildred  by the hand. Neither had looked back.

Support after that was readily available. By prudent saving Victoria had  amassed some 400 pounds from a wine merchant in Antibes, a Polish cavalry  lieutenant in Athens, an art dealer in Rome; she was in Florence now to  negotiate the purchase of a small couturiere's establishment on the left  bank. A young lady of enterprise, she found herself acquiring political  convictions, beginning to detest anarchists, the Fabian Society, even the  Earl of Rosebery. Since her eighteenth birthday she had been carrying a  certain innocence like a penny candle, sheltering the flame under a ringless  hand still soft with baby fat, redeemed from all stain by her candid eyes  and small mouth and a girl's body entirely honest as any act of contrition.  So she knelt unadorned save for an ivory comb, gleaming among all the  plausibly English quantities of brown hair. An ivory comb, five-toothed:  whose shape was that of five crucified, all sharing at least one common arm.  None of them was a religious figure: they were soldiers of the British Army.  She had found the comb in one of the Cairo bazaars. It had apparently been  hand-carved by a Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an artisan among the Mahdists, in  commemoration of the crucifixions of '83, in the country east of invested  Khartoum. Her motives in buying it may have been as instinctive and  uncomplex as those by which any young girl chooses a dress or gewgaw of a  particular hue and shape.

Now she did not regard her time with Goodfellow or with the three since him  as sinful: she only remembered Goodfellow at all because he had been the  first. It was not that her private, outre brand of Roman Catholicism merely  condoned what the Church as a whole regarded as sin: this was more than  simple sanction, it was implicit acceptance of the four episodes as outward  and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace belonging to Victoria  alone. Perhaps it was a few weeks she had spent as a girl in the novitiate,  preparing to become a sister, perhaps some malady of the generation; but  somehow at age nineteen she had crystallized into a nunlike temperament  pushed to its most dangerous extreme. Whether she had taken the veil or not,  it was as if she felt Christ were her husband and that the marriage's  physical consummation must be achieved through imperfect, mortal versions of  himself - of which there had been, to date, four. And he would continue to  perform his husband's duties through as many more such agents as he deemed  fit. It is easy enough to see where such an attitude might lead: in Paris  similarly-minded ladies were attending Black Masses, in Italy they lived in  Pre-Raphaelite splendor as the mistresses of archbishops or cardinals. It  happened that Victoria was not so exclusive.

She arose and walked down the center aisle to the rear of the church. She'd  dipped her fingers in holy water and was about to genuflect when someone  collided with her from behind. She turned, startled, to see an elderly man a  head shorter than herself, his hands held in front of him, his eyes  frightened.

"You are English," he said.

"I am."

"You must help me. I am in trouble. I can't go to the Consul-General."

He didn't look like a beggar or a hard-up tourist. She was reminded somehow  of Goodfellow. "Are you a spy, then?"

The old man laughed mirthlessly. "Yes. In a way I am engaged in espionage.  But against my will, you know. I didn't want it this way:"

Distraught: "I want to confess, don't you see? I'm in a church, a church is  where one confesses . . ."

"Come," she whispered.

"Not outside," he said. "The cafes are being watched."

She took his arm. "There is a garden in the back, I think. This way. Through  the sacristy."

He let her guide him, docile. A priest was kneeling in the sacristy, reading  his breviary. She handed him ten soldi as they passed. He didn't look up. A  short groined arcade led into a miniature garden surrounded by mossy stone  walls and containing a stunted pine, some grass and a carp pool. She led him  to a stone bench by the pool. Rain came over the walls in occasional gusts.  He carried a morning newspaper under his arm: now he spread sheets of it  over the bench. They sat. Victoria opened her parasol and the old man took a  minute lighting a Cavour. He sent a few puffs of smoke out into the rain,  and began:

"I don't expect you've ever heard of a place called Vheissu."

She had not.

He started telling her about Vheissu. How it was reached, on camel-back over  a vast tundra, past the dolmens and temples of dead cities; finally to the  banks of a broad river which never sees the sun, so thickly roofed is it  with foliage. The river is traveled in long teak boats which are carved like  dragons and paddled by brown men whose language is unknown to all but  themselves. In eight days' time there is a portage over a neck of  treacherous swampland to a green lake, and across the lake rise the first  foothills of the mountains which ring Vheissu. Native guides will only go a  short distance into these mountains. Soon they will turn back, pointing out  the way. Depending on the weather, it is one to two more weeks over moraine,  sheer granite and hard blue ice before the borders of Vheissu are reached.

"Then you have been there," she said.

He had been there. Fifteen years ago. And been fury-ridden since. Even in  the Antarctic, huddling in hasty shelter from a winter storm, striking camp  high on the shoulder of some as yet unnamed glacier, there would come to him  hints of the perfume those people distill from the wings of black moths.  Sometimes sentimental scraps of their music would seem to lace the wind;  memories of their faded murals, depicting old battles and older love affairs  among the gods, would appear without warning in the aurora.

"You are Godolphin," she said, as if she had always known.

He nodded, smiled vaguely. "I hope you are not connected with the press."  She shook her head, scattering droplets of rain. "This isn't for general  dissemination," he said, "and it may be wrong. Who am I to know my own  motives. But I did foolhardy things."

"Brave things," she protested. "I've read about them. In newspapers, in  books."

"But things which did not have to be done. The trek along the Barrier. The  try for the Pole in June. June down there is midwinter. It was madness."

"It was grand." Another minute, he thought hopelessly, and she'd begin  talking about a Union Jack flying over the Pole. Somehow this church  towering Gothic and solid over their heads, the quietness, her impassivity,  his confessional humor; he was talking too much, must stop. But could not.

"We can always so easily give the wrong reasons," he cried; "can say: the  Chinese campaigns, they were for the Queen, and India for some gorgeous  notion of Empire. I know. I have said these things to my men, the public, to  myself. There are Englishmen dying, in South Africa today and about to die  tomorrow who believe these words as - I dare say as you believe in God."

She smiled secretly. "And you did not?" she asked gently. She was gazing at  the rim of her parasol.

"I did. Until . . ."

"Yes."

"But why? Have you never harrowed yourself halfway to - disorder - with that  single word? Why." His cigar had gone out. He paused to relight it. "It's  not," he continued, "as if it were unusual in any supernatural way. No high  priests with secrets lost to the rest of the world, jealously guarded since  the dawn of time, generation to generation. No universal cures, nor even  panaceas for human suffering. Vheissu is hardly a restful place. There's  barbarity, insurrection, internecine feud. It's no different from any other  godforsakenly remote region. The English have been jaunting in and out of  places like Vheissu for centuries. Except . . ."

She had been gazing at him. The parasol leaned against the bench, its handle  hidden in the wet grass.

"The colors. So many colors." His eyes were tightly closed, his forehead  resting on the bowed edge of one hand. "The trees outside the head shaman's  house have spider monkeys which are iridescent. They change color in the  sunlight. Everything changes. The mountains, the lowlands are never the same  color from one hour to the next. No sequence of colors is the same from day  to day. As if you lived inside a madman's kaleidoscope. Even your dreams  become flooded with colors, with shapes no Occidental ever saw. Not real  shapes, not meaningful ones. Simply random, the way clouds change over a  Yorkshire landscape."

She was taken by surprise: her laugh was high and brittle. He hadn't heard.  "They stay with you," he went on, "they aren't fleecy lambs or jagged  profiles. They are, they are Vheissu, its raiment, perhaps its skin."

"And beneath?"

"You mean soul don't you. Of course you do. I wondered about the soul of  that place. If it had a soul. Because their music, poetry, laws and  ceremonies come no closer. They are skin too. Like the skin of a tattooed  savage. I often put it that way to myself - like a woman. I hope I don't  offend."

"It's all right."

"Civilians have curious ideas about the military, but I expect in this case  there's some justice to what they think about us. This idea of the randy  young subaltern somewhere out in the back of beyond, collecting himself a  harem of dusky native women. I dare say a lot of us have this dream, though  I've yet to run across anyone who's realized it. And I won't deny I get to  thinking this way myself. I got to thinking that way in Vheissu. Somehow,  there -" his forehead furrowed - "dreams are not, not closer to the waking  world, but somehow I think, they do seem more real. Am I making sense to  you?"

"Go on." She was watching him, rapt.

"But as if the place were, were a woman you had found somewhere out there, a  dark woman tattooed from head to toes. And somehow you had got separated  from the garrison and found yourself unable to get back, so that you had to  be with her, close to her, day in and day out . . ."

"And you would be in love with her."

"At first. But soon that skin, the gaudy godawful riot of pattern and color,  would begin to get between you and whatever it was in her that you thought  you loved. And soon, in perhaps only a matter of days, it would get so bad  that you would begin praying to whatever god you knew of to send some  leprosy to her. To flay that tattooing to a heap of red, purple and green  debris, leave the veins and ligaments raw and quivering and open at last to  your eyes and your touch. I'm sorry." He wouldn't look at her. The wind blew  rain over the wall. "Fifteen years. It was directly after we'd entered  Khartoum. I'd seen some beastliness in my Oriental campaigning, but nothing  to match that. We were to relieve General Gordon - oh you were, I suppose, a  chit of a girl then, but you've read about it, surely. What the Mahdi had  done to that city. To General Gordon, to his men. I was having trouble with  fever then and no doubt it was seeing all the carrion and the waste on top  of that. I wanted to get away, suddenly; it was as if a world of neat hollow  squares and snappy counter-marching had deteriorated into rout or  mindlessness. I'd always had friends on the staffs at Cairo, Bombay,  Singapore. And in two weeks this surveying Business came up, and I was in. I  was always weaseling in you know, on some show where you wouldn't expect to  find naval personnel. This time it was escorting a crew of civilian  engineers into some of the worst country on earth. Oh, wild, romantic.  Contour lines and fathom-markings, cross-hatchings and colors where before  there were only blank spaces on the map. All for the Empire. This sort of  thing might have been lurking at the back of my head. But then I only knew I  wanted to get away. All very good to be crying St. George and no quarter  about the Orient, but then the Mahdist army had been gibbering the same  thing, really, in Arabic, and had certainly meant it at Khartoum."

Mercifully, he did not catch sight of her comb.

"Did you get maps of Vheissu?"

He hesitated. "No," he said. "No data ever got back, either to F.O. or to  the Geographic Society. Only a report of failure. Bear in mind: It was bad  country. Thirteen of us went in and three came out. Myself, my  second-in-command, and a civilian whose name I have forgotten and who so far  as I know has vanished from the earth without a trace."

"And your second-in-command?"

"He is, he is in hospital. Retired now." There was a silence. "There was  never a second expedition," old Godolphin went on. "Political reasons, who  could say? No one cared. I got out of it scotfree. Not my fault, they told  me. I even received a personal commendation from the Queen, though it was  all hushed up."

Victoria was tapping her foot absently. "And all this has some bearing on  your, oh, espionage activities at present?"

Suddenly he looked older. The cigar had gone out again. He flung it into the  grass; his hand shook. "Yes." He gestured helplessly at the church, the gray  walls. "For all I know you might be - I may have been indiscreet."

Realizing that he was afraid of her, she leaned forward, intent. "Those who  watch the cafes. Are they from Vheissu? Emissaries?"

The old man began to bite at his nails; slowly and methodically, using the  top central and lower lateral incisors to make minute cuts along a perfect  arc-segment. "You have discovered something about them," she pleaded,  "something you cannot tell." Her voice, compassionate and exasperated, rang  out in the little garden. "You must let me help you." Snip, snip. The rain  fell off, stopped. "What sort of world is it where there isn't at least one  person you can turn to if you're in danger?" Snip, snip. No answer. "How do  you know the Consul-General can't help. Please, let me do something." The  wind came in, lorn now of rain, over the wall. Something splashed lazily in  the pool. The girl continued to harangue old Godolphin as he completed his  right hand and switched to his left. Overhead the sky began to darken.

 

IV

 The eighth floor at Piazza delta Signoria 5 was murky and smelled of fried  octopus. Evan, puffing from the last three flights of stairs, had to light  four matches before he found his father's door. Tacked to it, instead of the  card he'd expected to find, was a note on ragged-edged paper, which read  simply "Evan." He squinted at it curiously. Except for the rain and the  house's creakings the hallway was silent. He shrugged and tried the door. It  opened. He groped his way inside, found the gas, lit it. The room was  sparsely furnished. A pair of trousers had been tossed haphazard over the  back of a chair; a white shirt, arms outstretched, lay on the bed. There  were no other signs that anyone lived there: no trunks, no papers. Puzzled,  he sat on the bed and tried to think. He pulled the telegram out of his  pocket and read it again. Vheissu. The only clue he had to go on. Had old  Godolphin really, after all, believed such a place existed?

Evan - even the boy - had never pressed his father for details. He had been  aware that the expedition was a failure, caught perhaps some sense of  personal guilt or agency in the droning, kindly voice which recited those  stories. But that was all: he'd asked no questions, had simply sat and  listened, as if anticipating that someday he would have to renounce Vheissu  and that such renunciation would be simpler if he formed no commitment now.  Very well: his father had been undisturbed a year ago, when Evan had last  seen him; something must therefore have happened in the Antarctic. Or on the  way back. Perhaps here in Florence. Why should the old man have left a note  with only his son's name on it? Two possibilities: (a) if it were no note  but rather a name-card and Evan the first alias to occur to Captain Hugh, or  (b) if he had wished Evan to enter the room. Perhaps both. On a sudden hunch  Evan picked up the pair of trousers, began rummaging through the pockets. He  came up with three soldi and a cigarette case. Opening the case, he found  four cigarettes, all hand-rolled. He scratched his stomach. Words came back  to him: unwise to say too much in telegram. He sighed.

"All right then young Evan," he muttered to himself, "we shall play this  thing to the hilt. Enter Godolphin, the veteran spy." Carefully he examined  the case for hidden springs: felt along the lining for anything which might  have been put underneath. Nothing. He began to search the room, prodding the  mattress and scrutinizing it for recently-stitched seams. He combed the  armoire, lit matches in dark corners, looked to see if anything was taped to  the bottoms of chair seats. After twenty minutes he'd still found nothing  and was beginning to feel inadequate as a spy. He threw himself disconsolate  into a chair, picked up one of his father's cigarettes, struck a match.  "Wait," he said. Shook out the match, pulled a table over, produced a  penknife from his pocket and carefully slit each cigarette down the side,  brushing the tobacco off onto the floor. On the third try he was successful.  Written in pencil on the inside of the cigarette paper was: "Discovered  here. Scheissvogel's 10 P.M. Be careful. FATHER. "

Evan looked at his watch. Now what in the devil was all this about? Why so  elaborate? Had the old man been fooling with politics or was it a second  childhood? He could do nothing for a few hours at least. He hoped something  was afoot, if only to relieve the grayness of his exile, but was ready to be  disappointed. Turning off the gas, he stepped into the hall, closed the door  behind him, began to descend the stairs. He was wondering where  Scheissvogel's could be when the stairs suddenly gave under his weight and  he crashed through, clutching frantically in the air. He caught hold of the  banister; it splintered at the lower end and swung him out over the  stairwell, seven flights up. He hung there, listening to the nails edge  slowly out of the railing's upper end. I, he thought, am the most  uncoordinated oaf in the world. That thing is going to give any second now.  He looked around, wondering what he should do. His feet hung two yards away  from and several inches above the next banister. The ruined stairway he'd  just left was a foot away from his right shoulder. The railing he hung on  swayed dangerously. What can I lose, he thought. Only hope my timing isn't  too off. Carefully he bent his right forearm up until his hand rested flat  against the side of the stairway: then gave himself a violent shove. He  swung out over the gaping well, heard the nails shriek free of the wood  above him as he reached the extreme point of his swing, flung the railing  away, dropped neatly astride the next banister and slid down it backwards,  arriving at the seventh floor just as the railing crashed to earth far  below. He climbed off the banister, shaking, and sat on the steps. Neat, he  thought. Bravo, lad. Do well as an acrobat or something. But a moment later,  after he had nearly been sick between his knees, he thought: how accidental  was it, really? Those stairs were all right when I came up. He smiled  nervously. He was getting almost as loony as his father. By the time he  reached the street his shakiness had almost gone. He stood in front of the  house for a minute, getting his bearings.

Before he knew it he'd been flanked by two policemen. "Your papers," one of  them said.

Evan came aware, protesting automatically.

"Those are our orders, cavaliere." Evan caught a slight note of contempt in  the "cavaliere." He produced his passport; the guardie nodded together on  seeing his name.

"Would you mind telling me -" Evan began.

They were sorry, they could give him no information. He would have to  accompany them.

"I demand to see the English Consul-General."

"But cavaliere, how do we know you are English? This passport could be  forged. You may be from any country in the world. Even one we have never  heard of."

Flesh began to crawl on the back of his neck. He had suddenly got the insane  notion they were talking about Vheissu. "If your superiors can give a  satisfactory explanation," he said, "I am at your service."

"Certainly, cavaliere." They walked across the square and around a corner to  a waiting carriage. One of the policemen courteously relieved him of his  umbrella and began to examine it closely. "Avanti," cried the other, and  away they galloped down the Borgo di Greci.

 

V

 Earlier that day, the Venezuelan Consulate had been in an uproar. A coded  message had come through from Rome at noon in the daily bag, warning of an  upswing in revolutionary activities around Florence. Various of the local  contacts had already reported a tall, mysterious figure in a wideawake hat  lurking in the vicinity of the Consulate during the past few days.

"Be reasonable," urged Salazar, the Vice-Consul. "The worst we have to  expect is a demonstration or two. What can they do? Break a few windows  trample the shrubbery."

"Bombs," screamed Raton, his chief. "Destruction, pillage, rape, chaos. They  can take us over, stage a coup set up a junta. What better place? They  remember Garibaldi in this country. Look at Uruguay. They will have many  allies. What do we have? You, myself, one cretin of a clerk and the  charwoman."

The Vice-Consul opened his desk drawer and produced a bottle of Rufina. "My  dear Raton," he said, "calm yourself. This ogre in the flapping hat may be  one of our own men, sent over from Caracas to keep an eye on us." He poured  the wine into two tumblers, handed one to Raton. "Besides which the  communique from Rome said nothing definite. It did not even mention this  enigmatic person."

"He is in on it," Raton said, slurping wine. "I have inquired. I know his  name and that his activities are shady and illegal. Do you know what he is  called?" He hesitated dramatically. "The Gaucho."

"Gauchos are in Argentina," Salazar observed soothingly. "And the name might  also be a corruption of the French gauche. Perhaps he is left-handed."

"It is all we have to go on," Raton said obstinately. "It is the same  continent, is it not?"

Salazar sighed. "What is it you want to do?"

"Enlist help from the government police here. What other course is there?"

Salazar refilled the tumblers. "First," he said, "international  complications. There may be a question of jurisdiction. The grounds of this  consulate are legally Venezuelan soil."

"We can have them place a cordon of guardie around us, outside the  property," Raton said craftily. "That way they would be suppressing riot in  Italian territory."

"Es posibile," the Vice-Consul shrugged. "But secondly, it might mean a loss  of prestige with the higher echelons in Rome, in Caracas. We could easily  make fools of ourselves, acting with such elaborate precautions on mere  suspicion, mere whimsy."

"Whimsy!" shouted Raton. "Have I not seen this sinister figure with my own  eyes?" One side of his mustache was soaked with wine. He wrung it out  irritably. "There is something afoot," he went on, "something bigger than  simple insurrection, bigger than a single country. The Foreign Office of  this country has its eye on us. I cannot, of course, speak too indiscreetly,  but I have been in this Business longer than you, Salazar, and I tell you:  we shall have much more to worry about than trampled bushes before this  Business is done."

"Of course," Salazar said peevishly, "if I am no longer party to your  confidences . . ."

"You would not know. Perhaps they do not know at Rome. You will discover  everything in due time. Soon enough," he added darkly.

"If it were only your job, I would say, fine: call in the Italians. Call in  the English and the Germans too, for all I care. But if your glorious coup  doesn't materialize, I come out of it just as badly."

"And then," Raton chuckled, "that idiot clerk can take over both our jobs."

Salazar was not mollified. "I wonder," he said thoughtfully, "what sort of  Consul-General he would make."

Raton glowered. "I am still your superior."

"Very well then, your excellency -" spreading his hands hopelessly - "I  await your orders."

"Contact the government police at once. Outline the situation, stress its  urgency. Ask for a conference at their earliest possible convenience. Before  sundown, that means."

"That is all?"

"You might request that this Gaucho be put under apprehension." Salazar did  not answer. After a moment of glaring at the Rufina bottle, Raton turned and  left the office. Salazar chewed on the end of his pen meditatively. It was  midday. He gazed out the window, across the street at the Uffizi Gallery. He  noticed clouds massing over the Arno. Perhaps there would be rain.

 

They caught up with the Gaucho finally in the Ufiizi. He'd been lounging  against one wall of the Sala di Lorenzo Monaco, leering at the Birth of  Venus. She was standing in half of what looked like a scungille shell; fat  and blond, and the Gaucho, being a tedesco in spirit, appreciated this. But  he didn't understand what was going on in the rest of the picture. There  seemed to be some dispute over whether or not she should be nude or draped:  on the right a glassy-eyed lady built like a pear tried to cover her up with  a blanket and on the left an irritated young man with wings tried to blow  the blanket away while a girl wearing hardly anything twined around him,  probably trying to coax him back to bed. While this curious crew wrangled,  Venus stood gazing off into God knew where, covering up with her long  tresses. No one seemed to be looking at anyone else. A confusing picture.  The Gaucho had no idea why Signor Mantissa should want it, but it was none  of the Gaucho's affair. He scratched his head under the wideawake hat and  turned with a still-tolerant smile to see four guardie heading into the  gallery toward him, His first impulse was to run, his second to leap out a  window. But he'd familiarized himself with the terrain and both impulses  were checked almost immediately. "It is he," one of the guardie announced;  "avanti!" The Gaucho stood his ground, cocking the hat aslant and putting  his fists on his hips.

They surrounded him and a tenente with a beard informed him that he must be  placed under apprehension. It was regrettable, true, but doubtless he would  be released within a few days. The tenente advised him to make no  disturbance.

"I could take all four of you," the Gaucho said. His mind was racing,  planning tactics, calculating angles of enfilade. Had il gran signore  Mantissa blundered so extravagantly as to be arrested? Had there been a  complaint from the Venezuelan Consulate? He must be calm and admit nothing  until he saw how things lay. He was escorted along the "Ritratti diversi";  then two short rights into a long passageway. He didn't remember it from  Mantissa's map. "Where does this lead?"

"Over the Ponte Vecchio to the Pitti Gallery," the tenente said. "It is for  tourists. We are not going that far." A perfect escape route. The idiot  Mantissa! But halfway across the bridge they came out into the back roam of  a tobacconist's. The police seemed familiar with this exit; not so good  then, after all. Yet why all this secrecy? No city government was ever this  cautious. It must therefore be the Venezuelan Business. In the street was a  closed landau, painted black. They hustled him in and started toward the  right bank. He knew they wouldn't head directly for their destination. They  did not: once over the bridge the driver began to zigzag, run in circles,  retrace his way. The Gaucho settled back, cadged a cigarette from the  tenente, and surveyed the situation. If it were the Venezuelans, he was in  trouble. He had come to Florence specifically to organize the Venezuelan  colony, who were centered in the northeast part of the city, near Via  Cavour. There were only a few hundred of them: they kept to themselves and  worked either in the tobacco factory or at the Mercato Centrale, or as  sutlers to the Fourth Army Corps, whose installations were nearby. In two  months the Gaucho had squared them away into ranks and uniforms, under the  collective title Figli di Machiavelli. Not that they had any particular  fondness for authority; nor that they were, politically speaking, especially  liberal or nationalistic; it was simply that they enjoyed a good riot now  and again, and if martial organization and the aegis of Machiavelli could  expedite things, so much the better. The Gaucho had been promising them a  riot for two months now, but the time was not yet favorable: things were  quiet in Caracas, with only a few small skirmishes going on in the jungles.  He was waiting for a major incident, a stimulus to which he could provide a  thunderous antiphonal response back across the Atlantic's nave. It had been,  after all, only two years since settlement of the boundary dispute with  British Guiana, over which England and the United States nearly came to  blows. His agents in Caracas kept reassuring him: the scene was being set,  men were being armed, bribes given, it was only a matter of time. Apparently  something had happened, or why should they be pulling him in? He had to  figure out some way of getting a message to his lieutenant, Cuernacabron.  Their usual rendezvous was at Scheissvogel's beer garden, in Piazza Vittorio  Emmanuele. And there was still Mantissa and his Botticelli. Regrettable  about that. It would have to wait till another night . . .

Imbecile!

Wasn't the Venezuelan Consulate located only some fifty meters from the  Uffizi? If there were a demonstration in progress, the guardie would have  their hands full; might not even hear the bomb go off. A diversionary feint!  Mantissa, Cesare and the fat blonde would all get away cleanly. He might  even escort them to their rendezvous under the bridge: as instigator it  wouldn't be prudent to remain at the scene of the riot for very long.

This was all assuming, of course, that he could talk his way out of whatever  charges the police would try to press, or, failing that, escape. But the  essential thing right now was to get word to Cuernacabron. He felt the  carriage begin to slacken speed. One of the guardie produced a silk  handkerchief, doubled and redoubled it, and bound it over the Gaucho's eyes.  The landau bounced to a halt. The tenente took his arm and led him through a  courtyard, in a doorway, around a few corners, down a flight of stairs. "In  here," ordered the tenente.

"May I ask a favor," the Gaucho said, feigning embarrassment. "With all the  wine I have drunk today, I have not had the chance - That is, if I am to  answer your questions honestly and amiably, I should feel more at ease if -"

"All right," the tenente growled. "Angelo, you keep an eye on him." The  Gaucho smiled his thanks. He trailed down the hall after Angelo, who opened  the door for him. "May I remove this?" he asked. "After all, un gabinetto e  un gabinetto."

"Quite true," the guardia said. "And the windows are opaque. Go ahead."

"Mille grazie." The Gaucho removed his blindfold and was surprised to find  himself in an elaborate W. C. There were even stalls. Only the Americans and  the English could be so fastidious about plumbing. And the hallway outside,  he remembered, had smelled of ink, paper and sealing wax; a consulate,  surely. Both the American and the British consuls had their headquarters in  Via Tornabuoni, so he knew that he was roughly three blocks west of Piazza  Vittorio Emmanuele. Scheissvogel's was almost within calling distance.

"Hurry up," Angelo said.

"Are you going to watch?" the Gaucho asked, indignant. "Can't I have a  little privacy? I am still a citizen of Florence. This was a republic once."  Without waiting for a reply he entered a stall and shut the door behind him.  "How do you expect me to escape?" he called jovially from inside. "Flush  myself and swim away down the Arno?" While urinating he removed his collar  and tie, scribbled a note to Cuernacabron on the back of the collar,  reflected that occasionally the fox had his uses as well as the lion,  replaced collar, tie and blindfold and stepped out.

"You decided to wear it after all," Angelo said.

"Testing my marksmanship." They both laughed. The tenente had stationed the  other two guardie outside the door. "The man lacks charity," mused the  Gaucho as they steered him back down the hall.

Soon he was in a private office, seated on a hard wooden chair. "Take the  blindfold off," ordered a voice with an English accent. A wizened man, going  bald, blinked at him across a desk.

"You are the Gaucho," he said.

"We can speak English if you like," the Gaucho said. Three of the guardie  had withdrawn. The tenente and three plainclothesmen who looked to the  Gaucho like state police stood ranged about the walls.

"You are perceptive," the balding man said.

The Gaucho decided to give at least the appearance of honesty. All the  inglesi he knew seemed to have a fetish about playing cricket. "I am," he  admitted. "Enough to know what this place is, your excellency."

The balding man smiled wistfully. "I am not the Consul-General," he said.  "That is Major Percy Chapman, and he is occupied with other matters."

"Then I would guess," the Gaucho guessed, "that you are from the English  Foreign Office. Cooperating with Italian police."

"Possibly. Since you seem to be of the inner circle in this matter, I  presume you know why you have been brought here."

The possibility of a private arrangement with this man suddenly seemed  plausible. He nodded.

"And we can talk honestly."

The Gaucho nodded again, grinning.

"Then let us start," the balding man said, "by your telling me all you know  about Vheissu."

The Gaucho tugged perplexedly at one ear. Perhaps he had miscalculated,  after all. "Venezuela, you mean?"

"I thought we had agreed not to fence. I said Vheissu."

All at once the Gaucho, for the first time since the jungles, felt afraid.  When he answered it was with an insolence that rang hollow even to himself.  "I know nothing about Vheissu," he said.

The balding man sighed. "Very well." He shuffled papers around on the desk  for a moment. "Let us get down to the loathsome Business of interrogation."  He signaled to the three policemen, who closed swiftly in a triangle around  the Gaucho.

 

VI

 When old Godolphin awoke it was to a wash of red sunset through the window.  It was a minute or two till he remembered where he was. His eyes flickered  from the darkening ceiling to a flowered bouffant dress hanging on the door  of the armoire, to a confusion of brushes, vials and jars on the dressing  table, and then he remembered that this was the girl, Victoria's, room. She  had brought him here to rest for a while. He sat up on the bed, peering  about the room nervously. He knew he was in the Savoy, on the eastern side  of the Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele. But where had she gone? She had said she  would stay, keep watch over him, see that no harm came. Now she had  disappeared. He looked at his watch, twisting the dial to catch the failing  sunlight. He'd been asleep only an hour or so. She had wasted little time in  leaving. He arose, walked to the window, stood gazing out over the square,  watching the sun go down. The thought struck him that she might after all he  one of the enemy. He turned furiously, dashed across the room, twisted the  doorknob. The door was locked. Damn the weakness, this compulsion to beg  shrift of any random passer-by! He felt betrayal welling up around him,  eager to drown, to destroy. He had stepped into the confessional and found  himself instead in an oubliette. He crossed swiftly to the dressing table,  looking for something to force the door, and discovered a message, neatly  indited on scented note paper, for him:

If you value your well-being as much as I do, please do not try to leave.  Understand that I believe you and want to help you in your terrible need. I  have gone to inform the British Consulate of what you have told me. I have  had personal experience with them before; I know the Foreign Office to be  highly capable and discreet. I shall return shortly after dark.

He balled the paper up in his fist, flung it across the room. Even taking a  Christian view of the situation, even assuming her intentions were  well-meant and that she was not leagued with those who watched the cafes,  informing Chapman was a fatal error. He could not afford to have the F.O. in  on this. He sank down on the bed, head hung, hands clasped tightly between  his knees. Remorse and a numb impotence: they had been jolly chums, riding  arrogant on his epaulets like guardian angels for fifteen years. "It was not  my fault," he protested aloud to the empty room, as if the mother=of-pearl  brushes, the lace and dimity, the delicate Vessels of scent would somehow  find tongue and rally round him. "I was not meant to leave those mountains  alive. That poor civilian engineer, dropped out of human sight;  Pike-Leeming, incurable and insensate in a Home in Wales; and Hugh Godolphin  . . ." He arose, walked to the dressing table, stood staring at his face in  the mirror. "He will only be a matter of time." A few yards of calico lay on  the table, near them a pair of pinking shears. The girl seemed to be serious  about her dressmaking scheme (she'd been quite honest with him about her  past, not moved by his own confessional spirit so much as wanting to give  him some token to prepare the way toward a mutual trustfulness. He hadn't  been shocked by her disclosure of the affair with Goodfellow in Cairo. He  thought it unfortunate: it seemed to have given her some quaint and romantic  views about espionage.) He picked up the shears, turned them over in his  hands. They were long and glittering. The ripple edges would make a nasty  wound. He raised his eyes to those of his reflection with an inquiring look.  The reflection smiled dolefully. "No," he said aloud. "Not yet. "

Forcing the door with the shears took only half a minute. Two flights down  the back stairs and out a service entrance, and he found himself in Via  Tosinghi, a block north of the Piazza. He headed east, away from the center  of town. He had to find a way out of Florence. However he came out of this,  he would have to resign his commission and live from here on in a fugitive,  a temporary occupant of pension rooms, a dweller in the demimonde. Marching  through the dusk, he saw his fate complete, pre-assembled, inescapable. No  matter how he tacked yawed or dodged about he'd only be standing still while  that treacherous reef loomed closer with every shift in course.

He turned right and headed toward the Duomo. Tourists sauntered by, cabs  clattered in the street. He felt isolated from a human community - even a  common humanity - which he had regarded until recently as little more than a  cant concept which liberals were apt to use in making speeches. He watched  the tourists gaping at the Campanile; he watched dispassionately without  effort, curiously without commitment. He wondered at this phenomenon of  tourism: what was it drove them to Thomas Cook & Son in ever-increasing  flocks every year to let themselves in for the Campagna's fevers, the  Levant's squalor, the septic foods of Greece? To return to Ludgate Circus at  the desolate end of every season having caressed the skin of each alien  place, a peregrine or Don Juan of cities but no more able to talk of any  mistress's heart than to cease keeping that interminable Catalogue, that non  picciol' libro. Did he owe it to them, the lovers of skins, not to tell  about Vheissu, not even to let them suspect the suicidal fact that below the  glittering integument of every foreign land there is a hard dead-point of  truth and that in all cases - even England's - it is the same kind of truth,  can be phrased in identical words? He had lived with his knowledge since  June and that headlong drive for the Pole; was able now to control or  repress it almost at will. But the humans - those from whom, prodigal, he  had strayed and could expect no future blessing - those four fat  schoolmistresses whinnying softly to one another by the south portals of the  Duomo, that fop in tweeds and clipped mustaches who came hastening by in  fumes of lavender toward God knew what assignation; had they any notion of  what inner magnitudes such control must draw on? His own, he knew, were  nearly played out. He wandered down Via dell' Orivolo, counting the dark  spaces between street lamps as he had once counted the number of puffs it  took him to extinguish all his birthday candles. This year, next year,  sometime, never. There were more candles at this point perhaps than even he  could dream; but nearly all had been blown to twisted black wicks and the  party needed very little to modulate to the most gently radiant of wakes. He  turned left toward the hospital and surgeons' school, tiny and grayhaired  and casting a shadow, he felt, much too large.

Footsteps behind him. On passing the next street lamp he saw the elongated  shadows of helmeted heads bobbing about his quickening feet. Guardie? He  nearly panicked: he'd been followed. He turned to face them, arms spread  like the drooping wings of a condor at bay. He couldn't see them. "You are  wanted for questioning," a voice purred in Italian, out of the darkness.

For no good reason he could see, life returned to him all at once, things  were as they had always been, no different from leading a renegade squad  against the Mahdi, invading Borneo in a whaleboat, attempting the Pole in  midwinter. "Go to hell," he said cheerfully. Skipped out of the pool of  light they'd trapped him in and went dashing off down a narrow, twisting  side street. He heard footsteps, curses, cries of "Avanti!" behind him:  would have laughed but couldn't waste the breath. Fifty meters on he turned  abruptly down an alley. At the end was a trellis: he gasped it, swung  himself up, began to climb. Young rose-thorns pricked his hands, the enemy  howled closer. He came to a balcony, vaulted over, kicked in a set of French  windows and entered a bedroom where a single candle burned. A man and a  woman cringed nude and dumbfounded on the bed, their caresses frozen to  immobility. "Madonna!" the woman screamed. "E il mio marito!" The man swore  and tried to dive under the bed. Old Godolphin, blundering through the room,  guffawed. My God, he was thinking irrelevantly, I have seen them before. I  have seen this all twenty years ago in a music hall. He opened a door, found  a stairway, hesitated briefly, then started up. No doubt about it, he was in  a romantic mood. He'd be let down if there weren't a dash over the rooftops.  By the time he gained the roof the voices of his pursuers were roaring in  confusion far to his left. Disappointed, he made his way over the tops of  two or three more buildings anyway, found an outside stairway and descended  to another alley. For ten minutes he jogged along, taking in great breaths,  steering sinuous course. A brilliantly lighted back window finally attracted  his attention. He catfooted up to it, peered in. Inside, three men conferred  anxiously amid a jungle of hothouse flowers shrubs and trees. One of them he  recognized, and chuckled in amazement. It is a small planet indeed, he  thought, whose nether end I have seen. He tapped on the window. "Raf," he  called softly.

Signor Mantissa glanced up, startled. "Minghe," he said, seeing Godolphin's  grinning face. "The old inglese. Let him in, someone." The florist,  red-faced and disapproving, opened the rear door. Godolphin stepped in  quickly, the two men embraced, Cesare scratched his head. The florist  retreated behind a fan palm after resecuring the door.

"A long way from Port Said," Signor Mantissa said.

"Not so far," Godolphin said, "nor so long."

 

Here was the sort of friendship which doesn't decay, however gapped it may  be over the years with arid stretches of isolation from one another; more  significant a renewal of that instant, motiveless acknowledgment of kinship  one autumn morning four years back on the coaling piers at the head of the  Suez Canal. Godolphin, impeccable in full dress uniform, preparing to  inspect his man-o'-war, Rafael Mantissa the entrepreneur, overseeing the  embarkation of a fleet of bumboats he'd acquired in a drunken baccarat game  in Cannes the month before, had each touched glances and seen immediately in  the other an identical uprootedness, a similarly catholic despair. Before  they spoke they were friends. Soon they had gone out and got drunk together,  told each other their lives; were in fights, found, it seamed, a temporary  Home in the half-world behind Port Said's Europeanized boulevards. No rot  about eternal friendship or blood brotherhood ever needed to be spoken.

"What is it, my friend," Signor Mantissa said now.

"Do you remember, once," Godolphin said, "a place, I told you: Vheissu." It  hadn't been the same as telling his son, or the Board of Inquiry, or  Victoria a few hours before. Telling Raf had been like comparing notes with  a fellow sea dog on a liberty port both had visited.

Signor Mantissa made a sympathetic moue. "That again," he said.

"You have Business now. I'll tell you later."

"No, nothing. This matter of a Judas tree."

"I have no more," Gadrulfi the florist muttered. "I've been telling him this  far half an hour."

"He's holding out," Cesare said ominously. "Two hundred and fifty lire he  wants, this time."

Godolphin smiled. "What chicanery with the law requires a Judas tree?"

Without hesitation Signor Mantissa explained. "And now," he concluded, "we  need a duplicate, which we will let the police find."

Godolphin whistled. "You leave Florence tonight then."

"One way or the other, on the river barge at midnight, si:"

"And there would be room far one more?"

"My friend." Signor Mantissa gripped him by the biceps. "For you," he said.  Godolphin nodded. "You are in trouble. Of course. You need not even have  asked. If you had come along even without a word I would have slain the  barge captain at his first protest." The old man grinned. He was beginning  to feel at least halfway secure for the first time in weeks.

"Let me make up the extra fifty lire," he said.

"I could not allow -"

"Nonsense. Get the Judas tree." Sullenly the florist pocketed the money,  shambled to the corner and dragged a Judas tree, growing in a wine vat, from  behind a thick tangle of ferns.

"The three of us can handle it," Cesare said. "Where to?" 

"The Ponte Vecchio," Signor Mantissa said. "And then to Scheissvogel's.  Remember, Cesare, a firm and united front. We must not let the Gaucho  intimidate us. We may have to use his bomb, but we shall also have the Judas  trees. The lion and the fox."

They formed a triangle around the tree and lifted. The florist held the back  door open for them. They carried the tree twenty meters down an alley to a  waiting carriage.

"Andiam'," Signor Mantissa cried. The horses moved off at a trot.

"I am to meet my son at Scheissvogel's in a few hours," Godolphin said. He  had almost forgotten that Evan was probably now in the city. "I thought a  beer hall would be safer than a cafe. But perhaps it is dangerous after all.  The guardie are after me. They and others may have the place under  surveillance."

 

Signor Mantissa took a sharp right expertly. "Ridiculous," he said. "Trust  me. You are safe with Mantissa, I will defend your life as long as I have my  own." Godolphin did not answer for a moment, then only shook his head in  acceptance. For now he found himself wanting to see Evan; almost  desperately. "You will see your son. It will be a jolly family reunion."

Cesare was uncorking a bottle of wine and singing an old revolutionary song.  A wind had risen off the Arno. It blew Signor Mantissa's hair into a pale  flutter. They headed toward the center of town, rattling along at a hollow  clip. Cesare's mournful singing soon dissipated in the seeming vastness of  that street.

 

VII

 The Englishman who had questioned the Gaucho was named Stencil. A little  after sundown he was in Major Chapman's study, sitting bemused in a deep  leather chair, his scarred Algerian briar gone out unnoticed in the ashtray  beside him. In his left hand he held a dozen wooden penholders, recently  fitted with shiny new nibs. With his right hand he was hurling the pens  methodically, like darts, at a large photograph of the current Foreign  Minister which hung on the wall opposite. So far he had scored only a single  hit, in the center of the Minister's forehead. This had made his chief  resemble a benevolent unicorn, which was amusing but hardly rectified The  Situation. The Situation at the moment was frankly appalling. More than  that, it seemed to be irreparably bitched up.

The door suddenly burst open and a rangy man, prematurely gray, came roaring  in. "They've found him," he said, not too elated.

Stencil glanced up quizzically, a pen poised in his hand. "The old man?"

"At the Savoy. A girl, a young English girl. Has him locked in. She just  told us. Walked in and announced, calmly enough -"

"Go check it out, then," Stencil interrupted. "Though he's probably bolted  by now."

"Don't you want to see her?"

"Pretty?"

"Rather."

"No then. Things are bad enough as it is, if you see my point. I'll leave  her to you, Demivolt."

"Bravo, Sidney. Dedicated to duty, aren't you. St. George and no quarter. I  say. Well. I'm off, then. Don't say I didn't give you first chance."

Stencil smiled. "You're acting like a chorus boy. Perhaps I will see her.  Later, when you're done."

Demivolt smiled woefully. "It makes The Situation halfway tolerable, you  know." And bounded sadly back out through the door.

Stencil gritted his teeth. Oh, The Situation. The bloody Situation. In his  more philosophical moments he would wander about this abstract entity The  Situation, its idea, the details of its mechanism. He remembered times when  whole embassiesful of personnel had simply run amok and gibbering in the  streets when confronted with a Situation which refused to make sense no  matter who looked at it, or from what angle. He had once had a school chum  named Covess. They had entered the diplomatic service together, worked their  way up neck and neck. Until last year along name the Fashoda crisis and  quite early one morning Covess was discovered in spats and a pith helmet,  working his way around Piccadilly trying to recruit volunteers to invade  France. There had been some idea of commandeering a Cunard liner. By the  time they caught him he'd sworn in several costermongers, two streetwalkers  and a music-hall comedian. Stencil remembered painfully that they bad all  been singing Onward, Christian Soldiers in various keys and tempi.

He had decided long ago that no Situation had any objective reality: it only  existed in the minds of those who happened to be in on it at any specific  moment. Since these several minds tended to form a sum total or complex more  mongrel than homogeneous, The Situation must necessarily appear to a single  observer much like a diagram in four dimensions to an eye conditioned to  seeing its world in only three. Hence the success or failure of any  diplomatic issue must vary directly with the degree of rapport achieved by  the team confronting it. This had led to the near-obsession with teamwork  which had inspired his colleagues to dub him Soft-shoe Sidney, on the  assumption that he was at his best working in front of a chorus line.

But it was a neat theory, and he was in love with it. The only consolation  he drew from the present chaos was that his theory managed to explain it.  Brought up by a pair of bleak Nonconformist aunts, he had acquired the  Anglo-Saxon tendency to group northern/Protestant/intellectual against  Mediterranean/Roman Catholic/irrational. He had thus arrived in Florence  with a deep-rooted and chiefly subliminal ill will toward all things  Italian, and the subsequent conduct of his running mates from the secret  police confirmed it. What sort of Situation could one expect from such a  scurvy and heterogeneous crew?

The matter of this English lad, for example: Godolphin, alias Gadrulfi. The  Italians claimed they had been unable after an hour of interrogation to  extract anything about his father, the naval officer. Yet the first thing  the boy had done when they'd finally brought him round to the British  Consulate was to ask for Stencil's help in locating old Godolphin. He had  been quite ready to answer all inquiries about Vheissu (although he'd done  little more than recapitulate information already in F.O.'s possession); he  had gratuitously made mention of the rendezvous at Scheissvogel's at ten  tonight; in general he'd exhibited the honest concern and bewilderment of  any English tourist confronted with a happening outside the ken of his  Baedeker or the power of Cook's to deal with it. And this simply did not fit  in with the picture Stencil had formed of father and son as cunning  arch-professionals. Their employers, whoever they might be (Scheissvogel's  was a German beer hall, which might be significant, especially so with Italy  a member of the Dreibund), could not tolerate such simplicity. This show was  too big, too serious, to be carried out by any but the top men in the field.

The Department had been keeping a dossier on old Godolphin since '84, when  the surveying expedition had been all but wiped out. The name Vheissu  occurred in it only once, in a secret F.O. memorandum to the Secretary of  State for War, a memo condensed from Godolphin's personal testimony. But a  week ago the Italian Embassy in London sent round a copy of a telegram which  the censor at Florence, after informing the state police, had let go  through. The Embassy had included no explanation except for a scribbled note  on the copy: "This may be of interest to you. Cooperation to our mutual  advantage." It was initialed by the Italian Ambassador. On seeing Vheissu a  live file again, Stencil's chief had alerted operatives in Deauville and  Florence to keep a close eye on father and son. Inquiries began to be made  around the Geographical Society. Since the original had been somehow lost,  junior researchers started piecing together the text of Godolphin's  testimony at the time of the incident by interviewing all available members  of the original Board of Inquiry. The chief had been puzzled that no code  was used in the telegram; but it had only strengthened Stencil's conviction  that the Department was up against a pair of veterans. Such arrogance, he  felt, such cocksureness was exasperating and one hated them for it, but at  the same time one was overcome with admiration. Not bothering to use a code  was the devil-may-care gesture of the true sportsman.

The door opened hesitantly. "I say, Mr. Stencil."

"Yes, Moffit. Do what I told you?"

"They're together. Mine not to reason why, you know."

"Bravo. Give them an hour or so together. After that we let young Gadrulfi  out. Tell him we have nothing really to hold him on, sorry for the  inconvenience, pip-pip, a rivederci. You know."

"And then follow him, eh. game is afoot, ha, ha."

"Oh, he'll go to Scheissvogel's. We've advised him to keep the rendezvous,  and whether he's straight or not he'll meet the old man. At least if he's  playing his game the way we think he is."

"And the Gaucho?"

"Give him another hour. Then if he wants to escape, let him."

"Chancy, Mr. Stencil."

"Enough, Moffit. Back in the chorus line."

"Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay," said Moffit, soft-shoeing out the door. Stencil  heaved a sigh, leaned forward in the chair and recommenced his dart game.  Soon a second hit, two inches from the first, had transfigured the Minister  into a lopsided goat. Stencil gritted his teeth. "Pluck, lad," he muttered.  "Before the girl arrives the old bastard should look like a blooming  hedgehog."

 

Two cells away there was a loud morra game in progress. Outside the window,  somewhere, a girl sang about her love, killed defending his Homeland in a  faraway war.

"She's singing for the tourists," the Gaucho complained bitterly, "she must  be. No one ever sings in Florence. No one ever used to. Except now and again  the Venezuelan friends I told you about. But they sing marching songs, which  are useful for morale."

Evan stood by the cell door, leaning his forehead against the bars. "You may  no longer have any Venezuelan friends," he said. "They've probably all been  rounded up and pushed into the sea."

The Gaucho came over and gripped Evan's shoulder sympathetically. "You are  still young," he said "I know how it must have been. That's the way they  work. They attack a man's spirit. You will see your father again. I will see  my friends. Tonight. We're going to stage the most wonderful festa this city  has seen since Savonarola was burned."

Evan looked around hopelessly at the small cell, the heavy bars. "They told  me I might be released soon. But you stand a fat chance of doing anything  tonight. Except lose sleep."

The Gaucho laughed. "I think they will release me too. I told them nothing.  I'm used to their ways. They are stupid, and easily gotten round."

Evan clenched the bars furiously. "Stupid! Not only stupid. Deranged.  Illiterate. Some bungling clerk misspelled my name Gadrulfi, and they  refused to call me anything else. It was an alias, they said. Did it not say  Gadrulfi in my dossier? Was it not down in black and white?"

"Ideas are so novel to them. Once they get hold of one, having the vague  idea it is somehow precious, they wish to keep possession of it."

"If that were all. But someone in the higher echelons had got the idea  Vheissu was a code name for Venezuela. Either that or it was the same bloody  clerk, or his brother, who never learned to spell."

"They asked me about Vheissu," the Gaucho mused. "What could I say? This  time I really knew nothing. The English consider it important."

"But they don't tell you why. All they give you are mysterious hints. The  Germans are apparently in on it. The Antarctic is concerned in some way.  Perhaps in a matter of weeks, they say, the whole world will be plunged into  apocalypse. And they think I am in on it. And you. Why else, if they are  going to release us anyway, did they throw us into the same cell? We'll be  followed wherever we go. Here we are, in the thick of a grand cabal, and we  haven't the slightest notion of what's going on."

"I hope you didn't believe them. Diplomatic people always talk that way.  They are living always on the verge of some precipice or other. Without a  crisis they wouldn't be able to sleep nights."

Evan turned slowly to face his companion. "But I do believe them," he said  calmly. "Let me tell you. About my father. He would sit in my room, before I  went to sleep, and spin yarns about this Vheissu. About the spider-monkeys,  and the time he saw a human sacrifice, and the rivers whose fish are  sometimes opalescent and sometimes the color of fire. They circle round you  when you go in to bathe and dance a kind of elaborate ritual all about, to  protect you from evil. And there are volcanoes with cities inside them which  once every hundred years erupt into flaming hell but people go to live in  them anyway. And men in the hills with blue faces and women in the valleys  who give birth to nothing but sets of triplets, and beggars who belong to  guilds and hold jolly festivals and entertainments all summer long.

"You know haw a boy is. There comes a time for departure, a point where he  sees confirmed the suspicion he'd had for some time that his father is not a  god, not even an oracle. He sees that he no longer has any right to any such  faith. So Vheissu becomes a bedtime story or fairy tale after all, and the  boy a superior version of his merely human father.

"I thought Captain Hugh was mad; I would have signed the commitment papers  myself. But at Piazza della Signoria 5 I was nearly killed in something that  could not have been an accident, a caprice of the inanimate world; and from  then till now I have seen two governments hagridden to alienation over this  fairy tale or obsession I thought was my father's own. As if this condition  of being just human, which had made Vheissu and my boy's love for him a lie,  were now vindicating them both for me, showing them to have been truth all  along and after all. Because the Italians and the English in those  consulates and even that illiterate clerk are all men. Their anxiety is the  same as my father's, what is coming to be my own, and perhaps in a few weeks  what will be the anxiety of everyone living in a world none of us wants to  see lit into holocaust. Call it a kind of communion, surviving somehow on a  mucked-up planet which God knows none of us like very much. But it is our  planet and we live on it anyway."

The Gaucho did not answer. He walked to the window, stood gazing out. The  girl was singing now about a sailor, halfway round the world from Home and  his betrothed. From down the corridor floated cries: "Cinque, tre, otto,  brrrr!" Soon the Gaucho put his hands to his neck, removed his collar. He  came back to Evan.

"If they let you out," he said, "in time to see your father, there is also  at Scheissvogel's a friend of mine. His name is Cuernacabron. Everyone knows  him there. I would esteem it a favor if you would take him this, a message."  Evan took the collar and pocketed it absently. A thought occurred to him.

"But they will see your collar missing."

The Gaucho grinned, stripped off his shirt and tossed it under a bunk. "It  is warm, I will tell them. Thank you for reminding me. It's not easy for me  to think like a fox."

"How do you propose to get out?"

"Simply. When the turnkey comes to let you out, we beat him unconscious,  take his keys, fight our way to freedom."

"If both of us get away, should I still take the message?"

"Si. I must first go to Via Cavour. I will be at Scheissvogel's later, to  see some associates on another matter. Un gran colpo, if things work right."

Soon footsteps, jangling keys approached down the corridor. "He reads our  minds," the Gaucho chuckled. Evan turned to him quickly, clasped his hand.

"Good luck."

"Put down your bludgeon, Gaucho," the turnkey called in a cheerful voice.  "You are to be released, both of you."

"Ah, che fortuna," said the Gaucho mournfully. He went back to the window.  It seemed that the girl's voice could be heard all over April. The Gaucho  stood on tiptoe. "Un' gazz'!" he screamed.

 

VIII

 Around Italian spy circles the latest joke was about an Englishman who  cuckolded his Italian friend. The husband came Home one night to find the  faithless pair in flagrante delicto on the bed. Enraged, he pulled out a  pistol and was about to take revenge when the Englishman held up a  restraining hand. "I say old chap," he said loftily, "we're not going to  have any dissension in the ranks, are we? Think what this might do to the  Quadruple Alliance."

The author of this parable was one Ferrante, a drinker of absinthe and  destroyer of virginity. He was trying to grow a beard. He hated politics.  Like a few thousand other young men in Florence he fancied himself a  neo-Machiavellian. He took the long view, having only two articles of faith:  (a) the Foreign Service in Italy was irreparably corrupt and nitwit, and (b)  someone should assassinate Umberto I. Ferrante had been assigned to the  Venezuelan problem for half a year and was beginning to see no way out of it  except suicide.

That evening he was wandering around secret police headquarters with a small  squid in one hand, looking for someplace to cook it. He'd just bought it at  the market, it was for supper. The hub of spy activities in Florence was the  second floor of a factory which made musical instruments for devotees of the  Renaissance and Middle Ages. It was run nominally by an Austrian named Vogt,  who worked painstakingly during the daylight hours putting together rebecs,  shawms and theorbos, and spied at night. In the legal or everyday segment of  his life he employed as helpers a Negro named Gascoigne who would bring in  his friends from time to time to test out the instruments, and Vogt's  mother, an incredibly aged butterball of a woman who was under the curious  illusion that she'd had an affair with Palestrina in her girlhood. She would  be constantly haranguing visitors with fond reminiscences about  "Giovannino," these being mostly colorful allegations of sexual eccentricity  in the composer. If these two were in on Vogt's espionage activities, no one  was aware of it, not even Ferrante, who made it his Business to spy on his  colleagues as well as any more appropriate quarry. Vogt, however, being  Austrian, could probably be given credit for discretion. Ferrante had no  faith in covenants, he regarded them as temporary and more often than not  farcical. But he reasoned that as long as you'd made an alliance in the  first place you might as well comply with its rules as long as was  expedient. Since 1882, then, Germans and Austrians had been temporarily  acceptable. But English most assuredly not. Which had given rise to his joke  about the cuckolded husband. He saw no reason for cooperating with London on  this matter. It was a plot, he suspected, on Britain's part, to force a  wedge into the Triple Alliance, to divide the enemies of England so that  England could deal with them separately and at her leisure.

He descended into the kitchen. Horrible screeching noises were coming from  inside. Naturally leery of anything deviating from his private norm,  Ferrante dropped quietly to hands and knees, crawled cautiously up behind  the stove and peered around it. It was the old woman, playing some sort of  air on a viola da gamba. She did not play very well. When she saw Ferrante  she put the bow down and glared at him.

"A thousand pardons, signora," Ferrante said, getting to his feet. "I did  not mean to interrupt the music. I was wondering if I might borrow a skillet  and some oil. My supper. Which will take no more than a few minutes." He  waved the squid at her placatingly.

"Ferrante," she croaked abruptly, "this is no time for subtlety. Much is at  stake."

Ferrante was taken aback. Had she been snooping? Or merely in her son's  confidence? "I do not understand," he replied cautiously.

"That is nonsense," she retorted. "The English know something you did not.  It all began with this silly Venezuelan Business, but by accident, unaware,  your colleagues have stumbled on something so vast and terrifying that they  are afraid even to speak its name aloud."

"Perhaps."

"Is it not true, then, that the young Gadrulfi has testified to Herr Stencil  that his father believes there to be agents of Vheissu present in this  city?"

"Gadrulfi is a florist," said Ferrante impassively, "whom we have under  surveillance. He is associated with partners of the Gaucho, an agitator  against the legally constituted government of Venezuela. We have followed  them to this florist's establishment. You have got your facts confused."

"More likely you and your fellow spies have got your names confused. I  suppose you are maintaining as well this ridiculous fiction that Vheissu is  a code name for Venezuela."

"That is the way it appears in our files."

"You are clever, Ferrante. You trust no one."

He shrugged. "Can I afford to?"

"I suppose not. Not when a barbaric and unknown race, employed by God knows  whom, are even now blasting the Antarctic ice with dynamite, preparing to  enter a subterranean network of natural tunnels, a network whose existence  is known only to the inhabitants of Vheissu, the Royal Geographic Society in  London, Herr Godolphin, and the spies of Florence."

Ferrante stood suddenly breathless. She was paraphrasing the secret  memorandum Stencil had sent back to London not an hour ago.

"Having explored the volcanoes of their own region," she went on, "certain  natives of the Vheissu district were the first to become aware of these  tunnels, which lace the earth's interior at depths varying -"

"Aspetti!" Ferrante cried. "You are raving."

"Tell the truth," she said sharply. "Tell me what Vheissu is really the code  name for. Tell me, you idiot, what I already know: that it stands for  Vesuvius." She cackled horribly.

He was breathing with difficulty. She had guessed or spied it out or been  told. She was probably safe. But how could he say: I detest politics, no  matter if they are international or only within a single department. And the  politics which have led to this worked the same way and are equally as  detestable. Everyone had assumed that the code word referred to Venezuela, a  routine matter, until the English in formed them that Vheissu actually  existed. There was testimony from young Gadrulfi, corroborating data already  obtained from the Geographic Society and the Board of Inquiry fifteen years  ago, about the volcanoes. And from then on fact had been added to meager  fact and the censorship of that single telegram had avalanched into a  harrowing afternoon-long session of give-and-take, of logrolling, bullying,  factions and secret votes until Ferrante and his chief had to face the  sickening truth of the matter: that they must league with the English in  view of a highly probable common peril. That they could hardly afford not  to.

"It could stand for Venus, for all I know," he said. "Please, I cannot  discuss the matter." The old woman laughed again and began to saw away once  more on her viola da gamba. She watched Ferrante contemptuously as he took  down a skillet from a hook in the wall above the stove, poured olive oil  into it and poked the embers into flame. When the oil began to sizzle, he  placed his squid carefully in it, like an offering. He suddenly found  himself sweating, though the stove gave off no great heat. Ancient music  whined in the room, echoed off its walls. Ferrante let himself wonder, for  no good reason, if it had been composed by Palestrina.

 

IX

 

Adjoining the prison which Evan had recently vacated, and not far from the  British Consulate, are two narrow streets, Via del Purgatorio and Via  dell'Inferno, which intersect in a T whose long side parallels the Arno.  Victoria stood in this intersection, the night gloomy about her, a tiny  erect figure in white dimity. She was trembling as if she waited for some  lover. They had been considerate at the consulate; more than that, she had  seen the dull pounding of some knowledge heavy behind their eyes, and known  all at once that old Godolphin had indeed been wrung by a "terrible need,"  and that her intuition had once more been correct. Her pride in this faculty  was an athlete's pride in his strength or skill; it had once told her, for  example, that Goodfellow was a spy and not a casual tourist; more, had  revealed to her all at once a latent talent of her own for espionage. Her  decision to help Godolphin came not out of any romantic illusion about  spying-in that Business she saw mostly ugliness, little glamour-but rather  because she felt that skill or any virtu was a desirable and lovely thing  purely for its own sake; and it became more effective the further divorced  it was from moral intention. Though she would have denied it, she was one  with Ferrante, with the Gaucho, with Signor Mantissa; like them she would  act, when occasion arose, on the strength of a unique and private gloss on  The Prince. She overrated virtu, individual agency, in much the same way  Signor Mantissa overrated the fox. Perhaps one day one of them might ask:  what was the tag-end of an age if not that sort of imbalance, that tilt  toward the more devious, the less forceful?

She wondered, standing stone-still at the crossroads, whether the old man  had trusted her, had waited after all. She prayed that he had, less perhaps  from concern for him than from some obvoluted breed of self-aggrandizement  which read the conforming of events to the channels she'd set out for them  as glorious testimony to her own skill. One thing she had avoided - probably  because of the supernatural tinge men acquired in her perception - was the  schoolgirlish tendency to describe every male over the age of fifty as  "sweet," "dear," or "nice." Dormant in every aged man she saw rather his  image regressed twenty or thirty years, like a wraith which nearly merged  outlines with its counterpart: young, potent, possessing mighty sinews and  sensitive hands. So that in Captain Hugh it had been the young version she  wished to help and make a part of the vast system of channels, locks and  basins she had dug for the rampant river Fortune.

If there were, as some doctors of the mind were beginning to suspect, an  ancestral memory, an inherited reservoir of primordial knowledge which  shapes certain of our actions and casual desires, then not only her presence  here and now between purgatory and hell, but also her entire commitment to  Roman Catholicism as needful and plausible stemmed from and depended on an  article of the primitive faith which glimmered shiny and supreme in that  reservoir like a crucial valve-handle: the notion of the wraith or spiritual  double, happening on rare occasions by multiplication but more often by  fission, and the natural corollary which says the son is doppelganger to the  father. Having once accepted duality Victoria had found it only a single  step to Trinity. And having seen the halo of a second and more virile self  flickering about old Godolphin, she waited now outside the prison while  somewhere to her right a girl sang lonely, telling a tale of hesitation,  between a rich man who was old and a young man who was fair.

At length she heard the prison door open, heard his footsteps begin to  approach down a narrow alleyway, heard the door slam to again. She dug the  point of her parasol into the ground beside one tiny foot and gazed down at  it. He was upon her before she realized it, nearly colliding with her. "I  say," he exclaimed.

She looked up. His face was indistinct. He peered closer at her. "I saw you  this afternoon," he said. "The girl in the tram, isn't it."

She murmured assent. "And you sang Mozart to me." He did not look at all  like his father.

"A bit of a lark," Evan bumbled. "Didn't mean to embarrass you."

"You did."

Evan hung his head, sheepish. "But what are you doing out here, at this time  of night?" He forced a laugh. "Not waiting for me, surely."

"Yes," she said quietly. "Waiting for you."

"That's terribly flattering. But if I may say so, you aren't the sort of  young lady who . . . I mean, are you? I mean, dash it, why should you be  waiting for me? Not because you liked my singing voice."

"Because you are his son," she said.

He did not, he realized, have to ask for explanation: wouldn't have to  stammer, how did you nt my father, how did you know I was here, that I  would've released? It was as if what he'd said to the Gaucho, back in their  cell, had been like confession; an acknowledgment of weakness; as if the  Gaucho's silence in turn had served as absolution, redeeming the weakness,  propelling him suddenly into the trembling planes of a new kind of manhood.  He felt that belief in Vheissu gave him no right any more to doubt as  arrogantly as he had before, that perhaps wherever he went from now on he  would perform like penance a ready acceptance of miracles or visions such as  this meeting at the crossroads seemed to him to be. They began to walk. She  tucked her hands around his bicep.

From his slight elevation he noted an ornate ivory comb, sunk to the armpits  in her hair. Faces, helmets, arms linked: crucified? He blinked closer at  the faces. All looked drawn-down by the weight of the bodies beneath: but  seemed to grimace more by convention - with an Eastern idea of patience -  than with any more explicit or Caucasian pain. What a curious girl it was  beside him. He was about to use the comb for a conversational opening when  she spoke.

"How strange tonight, this city. As if something trembled below its surface,  waiting to burst through."

"Oh I've felt it. I think to myself: we are not, any of us, in the  Renaissance at all. Despite the Fra Angelicos, the Titians, Botticellis;  Brunelleschi church, ghosts of the Medici. It is another time. Like radium,  I expect: they say radium changes, bit by bit, over unimaginable spaces of  time, to lead. A glow about old Firenze seems to be missing, seems more a  leaden gray."

"Perhaps the only radiance left is in Vheissu."

He looked down at her. "How odd you are," he said. "I almost feel you know  more than I about the place."

She pursed her lips. "Do you know how I felt when I spoke with him? As if  he'd told me the same stories he told you when you were a bay, and I had  forgotten them, but needed only to see him, hear his voice, for all the  memories to come rushing back undecayed."

He smiled. "That would make us brother and sister."

She didn't answer. They turned into Via Porta Rossa. Tourists were thick in  the streets. Three rambling musicians, guitar, violin and kazoo, stood on a  corner, playing sentimental airs.

"Perhaps we are in limbo," he said. "Or like the place we met: some still  point between hell and purgatory. Strange there's no Via del Paradiso  anywhere in Florence."

"Perhaps nowhere in the world."

For that moment at least they seemed to give up external plans, theories and  codes, even the inescapable romantic curiosity about one another, to indulge  in being simply and purely young, to share that sense of the world's  affliction, that outgoing sorrow at the spectacle of Our Human Condition  which anyone this age regards as reward or gratuity for having survived  adolescence. For them the music was sweet and painful, the strolling chains  of tourists like a Dance of Death. They stood on the curb, gazing at one  another, jostled against by hawkers and sightseers, lost as much perhaps in  that bond of youth as in the depths of the eyes each contemplated.

He broke it first. "You haven't told me your name."

She told him.

"Victoria," he said. She felt a kind of triumph. It was the way he'd said it.

He patted her hand. "Come," he said feeling protective, almost fatherly. "I  am to meet him, at Scheissvogel's."

"Of course," she said. They turned left, away from the Arno, toward Piazza  Vittorio Emmanuele.

 

The Figli di Machiavelli had taken over for their garrison an abandoned  tobacco warehouse off Via Cavour. It was deserted at the moment except for  an aristocratic-looking man named Borracho, who was performing his nightly  duty of checking the rifles. There was a sudden pounding at the door.  "Digame," yelled Borracho.

"The lion and the fox," came the answer Borracho unlatched the door and was  nearly bowled over by a thick-set mestizo called Tito, who earned his living  selling obscene photographs to the Fourth Army Corps. He appeared highly  excited.

"They're marching," he began to babble, "tonight, half a battalion, they  have rifles, and fixed bayonets -"

"What in God's name is this," Borracho growled, "has Italy declared war? Que  pasa?"

"The Consulate. The Consulate of Venezuela. They are to guard it. They  expect us. Someone has betrayed the Figli di Machiavelli."

"Calm down," Borracho said. "Perhaps the moment which the Gaucho promised us  has arrived at last. We must expect him, then. Quickly. Alert the others.  Put them on standby. Send a messenger into town to find Cuernacabron. He  will likely be at the beer garden."

Tito saluted, wheeled, ran to the door on the double, unlocked it. A thought  occurred to him. "Perhaps," he said, "perhaps the Gaucho himself is the  traitor." He opened the door. The Gaucho stood there, glowering. Tito gaped.  Without a word the Gaucho brought his closed fist down on the mestizo's  head. Tito toppled and crashed to the floor.

"Idiot," the Gaucho said. "What's happened? Is everyone insane?"

Borracho told him about the army.

The Gaucho rubbed his hands. "Bravissimo. A major action. And yet we've not  heard from Caracas. No matter. We move tonight. Alert the troops. We must be  there at midnight."

"Not much time, commendatore."

"We will be there at midnight. Vada."

"Si, commendatore." Borracho saluted and left, stepping carefully over Tito  on his way out.

The Gaucho took a deep breath, crossed his arms, flung them wide, crossed  them again. "So," he cried to the empty warehouse. "The night of the lion  has come again to Florence!"

 

X

 

Scheissvogel's Biergarten and Rathskeller was a nighttime favorite not only  with the German travelers in Florence but also, it seemed, with those of the  other touring nations. An Italian caffe (it was conceded) being fine for the  afternoon, when the city lazed in contemplation of its art treasures. But  the hours after sundown demanded a conviviality, a boisterousness which the  easygoing - perhaps even a bit cliquish - caffes did not supply. English,  American, Dutch, Spanish, they seemed to seek some Hofbrauhaus of the spirit  like a grail, hold a krug of Munich beer like a chalice. Here at  Scheissvogel's were all the desired elements: blond barmaids, with thick  braids wound round the back of the head, who could carry eight foaming  kruger at a time, a pavilion with a small brass band out in the garden, an  accordionist inside, confidences roared across a table, much smoke, group  singing.

Old Godolphin and Rafael Mantissa sat out in back in the garden, at a small  table, while the wind from the river played chilly about their mouths and  the wheeze of the band frolicked about their ears, more absolutely alone, it  seemed to them, than anyone else in the city.

"Am I not your friend?" Signor Mantissa pleaded. "You must tell me. Perhaps,  as you say, you have wandered outside the world's communion. But haven't I  as well? Have I not been ripped up by the roots, screaming like the  mandrake, transplanted from country to country only to find the soil arid,  or the sun unfriendly, the air tainted? Whom should you tell this terrible  secret to if not to your brother?"

"Perhaps to my son," said Godolphin.

"I never had a son. But isn't it true that we spend our lives seeking for  something valuable, some truth to tell to a son, to give to him with love?  Most of us aren't as lucky as you, perhaps we have to be torn away from the  rest of men before we can have such words to give to a son. But it has been  all these years. You can wait a few minutes more. He will take your gift and  use it for himself, for his own life. I do not malign him. It is the way a  younger generation acts: that, simply. You, as a boy, probably bore away  some such gift from your own father, not realizing that it was still as  valuable to him as it would be to you. But when the English speak of  'passing down' something from one generation to another, it is only that. A  son passes nothing back up. Perhaps this is a sad thing, and not Christian,  but it has been that way since time out of mind, and will never change.  Giving, and giving back, can be only between you and one of your own  generation. Between you and Mantissa, your dear friend."

The old man shook his head, half-smiling; "It isn't so much, Raf, I've grown  used to it. Perhaps you will find it not so much."

"Perhaps. It is difficult to understand how an English explorer thinks. Was  it the Antarctic? What sends the English into these terrible places?"

Godolphin stared at nothing. "I think it is the opposite of what sends  English reeling all over the globe in the mad dances called Cook's tours.  They want only the skin of a place, the explorer wants its heart. It is  perhaps a little like being in love. I bad never penetrated to the heart of  any of those wild places, Raf. Until Vheissu. It was not till the Southern  Expedition last year that I saw what was beneath her skin."

"What did you see?" asked Signor Mantissa, leaning forward.

"Nothing," Godolphin whispered. "It was Nothing I saw." Signor Mantissa  reached out a hand to the old man's shoulder. "Understand," Godolphin said,  bowed and motionless, "I had been tortured by Vheissu for fifteen years. I  dreamed of it, half the time I lived in it. It wouldn't leave me. Colors,  music, fragrances. No matter where I got assigned, I was pursued by  memories. Now I am pursued by agents. That feral and lunatic dominion cannot  afford to let me escape.

"Raf, you will be ridden by it longer than I. I haven't much time left. You  must never tell anyone, I won't ask for your promise; I take that for  granted. I have done what no man has done. I have been at the Pole."

"The Pole. My friend. Then why have we not -"

"Seen it in the press. Because I made it that way. They found me, you  remember, at the last depot, half dead and snowed in by a blizzard. Everyone  assumed I had tried for the Pole and failed. But I was on my way back. I let  them tell it their way. Do you see? I had thrown away a sure knighthood,  rejected glory for the first time in my career, something my son has been  doing since he was born. Evan is rebellious, his was no sudden decision. But  mine was, sudden and necessary, because of what I found waiting for me at  the Pole."

Two carabinieri and their girls arose from a table and weaved arm-in-arm out  of the garden. The band began to play a sad waltz. Sounds of carousing in  the beer hall floated out to the two men. The wind blew steady, there was no  moon. The leaves of trees whipped to and fro like tiny automata.

"It was a foolish thing," Godolphin said, "what I did. There was nearly a  mutiny. After all, one man, trying for the Pole, in the dead of winter. They  thought I was insane. Possibly I was, by that time. But I had to reach it. I  had begun to think that there, at one of the only two motionless places on  this gyrating world, I might have peace to solve Vheissu's riddle. Do you  understand? I wanted to stand in the dead center of the carousel, if only  for a moment; try to catch my bearings. And sure enough: waiting for me was  my answer. I'd begun to dig a cache nearby, after planting the flag. The  barrenness of that place howled around me, like a country the demiurge had  forgotten. There could have been no more entirely lifeless and empty place  anywhere on earth. Two or three feet down I struck clear ice. A strange  light, which seemed to move inside it, caught my attention. I cleared a  space away. Staring up at me through the ice, perfectly preserved, its fur  still rainbow-colored, was the corpse of one of their spider monkeys. It was  quite real; not like the vague hints they had given me before. I say 'they  had given.' I think they left it there for me. Why? Perhaps for some alien,  not-quite-human reason that I can never comprehend. Perhaps only to see what  I would do. A mockery, you see: a mockery of life, planted where everything but Hugh Godolphin was inanimate. With of course the implication . . . It  did tell me the truth about them. If Eden was the creation of God, God only  knows what evil created Vheissu. The skin which had wrinkled through my  nightmares was all there had ever been. Vheissu itself, a gaudy dream. Of  what the Antarctic in this world is closest to: a dream of annihilation."

Signor Mantissa looked disappointed. "Are you sure. Hugh? I have heard that  in the polar regions men, after long exposure, see things which -"

"Does it make any difference?" Godolphin said. "If it were only a  hallucination, it was not what I saw or believed I saw that in the end is  important. It is what I thought. What truth I came to."

Signor Mantissa shrugged helplessly. "And now? Those who are after you?"

"Think I will tell. Know I have guessed the meaning of their clue, and fear  I will try to publish it. But dear Christ, how could I? Am I mistaken, Raf?  I think it must send the world mad. Your eyes are puzzled. I know. You can't  see it yet. But you will. You are strong. It will hurt you no more -" he  laughed - "than it has hurt me." He looked up, over Signor Mantissa's  shoulder. "Here is my son. The girl is with him."

Evan stood over them. "Father," he said.

"Son." They shook hands. Signor Mantissa yelled for Cesare and drew up a  chair for Victoria.

"Could you all excuse me for a moment. I must deliver a message. For a Senor  Cuernacabron."

"He is a friend of the Gaucho," Cesare said, coming up behind them.

"You have seen the Gaucho?" asked Signor Mantissa.

"Half an hour ago."

"Where is he?"

"Out at Via Cavour. He is coming here later, he said he had to meet friends  on another matter."

"Aha!" Signor Mantissa glanced at his watch. "We haven't much time. Cesare,  go and inform the barge of our rendezvous. Then to the Ponte Vecchio for the  trees. The cabman can help. Hurry." Cesare ambled off. Signor Mantissa  waylaid a waitress, who set down four liters of beer on the table. "To our  enterprise," he said.

Three tables away Moffit watched, smiling.

 

XI

 That march from Via Cavour was the most splendid the Gaucho could remember.  Somehow, miraculously, Borracho, Tito and a few friends had managed in a  surprise raid to make off with a hundred horses from the cavalry. The theft  was discovered quickly, but not before Figli di Machiavelli, hollering and  singing, were mounted and galloping toward the center of town. The Gaucho  rode in front, wearing a red shirt and a wide grin. "Avanti, i miei  fratelli," they sang, "Figli di Machiavelli, avanti alla donna Liberta!"  Close behind came the army, pursuing in ragged, furious files, half of them  on foot, a few in carriages. Halfway into town the renegades met  Cuernacabron in a gig: the Gaucho wheeled, swooped, gathered him up bodily,  turned again to rejoin the Figli. "My comrade," he roared to his bewildered  second-in-command, "isn't it a glorious evening."

They reached the Consulate at a few minutes to midnight and dismounted,  still singing and yelling. Those who worked at the Mercato Centrale had  provided enough rotten fruit and vegetables to set up a heavy and sustained  barrage against the Consulate. The army arrived. Salazar and Raton watched  cringing from the second-floor window. Fistfights broke out. So far no shots  had been fired. The square had erupted suddenly into a great whirling  confusion. Passers-by fled bawling to what shelter they could find.

The Gaucho caught sight of Cesare and Signor Mantissa, with two Judas trees,  shuffling impatiently near the Posta Centrale. "Good God," he said. "Two  trees? Cuernacabron, I have to leave for a while. You are now commendatore.  Take charge." Cuernacabron saluted and dived into the melee. The Gaucho,  making his way aver to Signor Mantissa, saw Evan, the father, and the girl  waiting nearby. "Buona sera once again, Gadrulfi," he called, flipping a  salute in Evan's direction. "Mantissa, are we ready?" He unclipped a large  grenade from one of the ammunition belts crisscrossing his chest. Signor  Mantissa and Cesare picked up the hollow tree.

"Guard the other one," Signor Mantissa called back to Godolphin. "Don't let  anyone know it's there until we return."

"Evan," the girl whispered, moving closer to him. "Will there be shooting?"

He did not hear her eagerness, only her fear. "Don't be afraid," he said,  aching to shelter her.

Old Godolphin had been looking at them, shuffling his feet, embarrassed.  "Son," he finally began, conscious of being a fool, "I suppose this is  hardly the time to mention it. But I must leave Florence. Tonight. I would -  I wish you would come with me." He couldn't look at his son. The boy smiled  wistfully, his arm round Victoria's shoulders.

"But Papa," he said, "I would be leaving my only true love behind."

Victoria stood on tiptoe to kiss his neck. "We will meet again," she  whispered sadly, playing the game.

The old man turned away from them, trembling, not understanding, feeling  betrayed once again. "I am terribly sorry," he said.

Evan released Victoria, moved to Godolphin. "Father," he said, "Father, it's  our way only. It's my fault, the joke. A trivial oaf's joke. You know I'll  come with you."

"My fault," the father said. "My oversight, I dare say, for not keeping up  with the younger people. Imagine, something so simple as a way of speaking .  . .

Evan let his hand rest splayed on Godolphin's back. Neither moved for a  moment. "On the barge," Evan said, "there we'll be able to talk."

The old man turned at last. "Time we got round to it."

"We will," Evan said, trying to smile. "After all, here we've been, so many  years, biffing about at opposite ends of the world."

The old man did not answer, but burrowed his face against Evan's shoulder.  Both felt slightly embarrassed. Victoria watched them for a moment, then  turned away to gaze, placid, at the rioting. Shots began to ring out. Blood  began to stain the pavements, screams to punctuate the singing of the Figli  di Machiavelli. She saw a rioter in a shirt of motley, sprawled over the  limb of a tree, being bayoneted again and again by two soldiers. She stood  as still as she had at the crossroads waiting for Evan; her face betrayed no  emotion. It was as if she saw herself embodying a feminine principle, acting  as complement to all this bursting, explosive male energy. Inviolate and  calm, she watched the spasms of wounded bodies, the fair of violent death,  framed and staged, it seemed, for her alone in that tiny square. From her  hair the heads of five crucified also looked on, no more expressive than  she.

 

Lugging the tree, Signor Mantissa and Cesare staggered through the "Ritratti  diversi," while the Gaucho guarded their rear. He'd already had to fire at  two guards. "Hurry," he said. "We must be out of here soon. They won't be  diverted for long."

Inside the Sala di Lorenzo Monaco Cesare unsheathed a razor-edged dagger and  prepared to slice the Botticelli from its frame. Signor Mantissa gazed at  her, at the asymmetric eyes, tilt of the frail head, streaming gold hair. He  could not move; as if he were any gentle libertine before a lady he had  writhed for years to possess, and now that the dream was about to be  consummated he had been struck suddenly impotent. Cesare dug the knife into  the canvas, began to saw downward. Light, shining in from the street,  reflected from the blade, flickering from the lantern they had brought,  danced over the painting's gorgeous surface. Signor Mantissa watched its  movement, a slow horror growing in him. In that instant he was reminded of  Hugh Godolphin's spider-monkey, still shimmering through crystal ice at the  bottom of the world. The whole surface of the painting now seemed to move,  to be flooded with color and motion. He thought, for the first time in  years, of the blond seamstress in Lyons. She would drink absinthe at night  and torture herself for it in the afternoon. God hated her, she said. At the  same time she was finding it more difficult to believe in him. She wanted to  go to Paris, she had a pleasant voice, did she not? She would go on the  stage, it had been her dream since girlhood. Countless mornings, in the  hours when passion's inertia of motion had carried them along faster than  sleep could overtake them, she had poured out to him schemes, despairs, all  tiny, relevant loves.

What sort of mistress, then, would Venus be? What outlying worlds would he  conquer in their headlong, three-in-the-morning excursions away from the  cities of sleep? What of her God, her voice, her dreams? She was already a  goddess. She had no voice he could ever hear. And she herself (perhaps even  her native demesne?) was only . . .

A gaudy dream, a dream of annihilation. Was that what Godolphin had meant?  Yet she was no less Rafael Mantissa's entire love.

"Aspetti," he shouted, leaping forward to grab Cesare's hand.

"Sei pazzo?" Cesare snarled.

"Guards coming this way," the Gaucho announced from the entrance to the  gallery. "An army of them. For God's sake, hurry."

"You have come all this way," Cesare protested, "and now you will leave her?"

"Yes."

The Gaucho raised his head, suddenly alert. The rattle of gunfire came to  him faintly. With an angry motion he flung the grenade down the corridor;  the approaching guards scattered and it went off with a roar in the  "Ritratti diversi." Signor Mantissa and Cesare, empty-handed, were at his  back. "We must run for our lives," the Gaucho said. "Have you got your lady  with you?"

"No," Cesare said, disgusted. "Not even the damned tree."

They dashed down a corridor smelling of burnt cordite. Signor Mantissa  noticed that paintings in the "Ritratti diversi" had all been taken down for  the redecorating. The grenade had harmed nothing except the walls and a few  guards. It was a mad, all-out sprint, with the Gaucho taking pot-shots at  guards, Cesare waving his knife, Signor Mantissa flapping his arms wildly.  Miraculously they reached the entrance and half-ran, half tumbled down 126  steps to the Piazza della Signoria. Evan and Godolphin joined them.

"I must return to the battle," the Gaucho said, breathless. He stood for a  moment watching the carnage. "But don't they look like apes, now, fighting  over a female? Even if the female is named Liberty." He drew a long pistol,  checked the action. "There are nights," he mused, "nights, alone, when I  think we are apes in a circus, mocking the ways of men. Perhaps it is all a  mockery, and the only condition we can ever bring to men a mockery of  liberty, of dignity. But that cannot be. Or else I have lived . . ."

Signor Mantissa grasped his hand. "Thank you," he said.

The Gaucho shook his head. "Per niente," he muttered, then abruptly turned  and made his way toward the riot in the square. Signor Mantissa watched him  briefly. "Come," he said at last.

Evan looked over to where Victoria was standing enchanted. He seemed about  to move, or call to her. Then he shrugged and turned away to follow the  others. Perhaps he didn't want to disturb her.

Moffit, knocked sprawling by a not-so-rotten turnip, saw them. "They're  getting away," he said. He got to his feet and began clawing his way through  the rioters expecting to be shot at any minute. "In the name of the Queen,"  he cried. "Halt." Someone careened into him.

"I say," said Moffit, "it's Sidney."

"I've been looking all over for you," Stencil said.

"Not a mo too soon. They're getting away."

"Forget it."

"Down that alley. Hurry." He tugged at Stencil's sleeve. "Forget it, Moffit.  It's off. The whole show."

"Why?

"Don't ask why. It's over." But."

"There was just a communique from London. From the Chief. He knows more than  I do. He called it off. How should I know? No one ever tells me anything."

"Oh, my God."

They edged into a doorway. Stencil pulled out his pipe and lit it. The  sounds of firing rose in a crescendo which it seemed would never stop.  "Moffit," Stencil said after a while, puffing meditatively, "if there is  ever a plot to assassinate the Foreign Minister, I pray I never get assigned  to the job of preventing it. Conflict of interest, you know."

 

They scurried down a narrow street to the Lungarno. There, after Cesare had  removed two middle-aged ladies and a cab driver, they took possession of a  fiacre and clattered off pell-mell for the Ponte San Trinita. The barge was  waiting for them, dim amid the river's shadows. The captain jumped to the  quay. "Three of you," he bellowed. "Our bargain included only one." Signor  Mantissa flew into a rage, leaped from the carriage, picked up the captain  bodily and before anyone had time to register amazement, flung him into the  Arno. "On board!" he cried. Evan and Godolphin jumped onto a cargo of crated  Chianti flasks. Cesare moaned, thinking of how that trip would be.

"Can anyone pilot a barge," Signor Mantissa wondered. "It is like a  man-o'-war," Godolphin smiled, "only smaller and no sails. Son, would you  cast off."

"Aye, aye, sir." In a moment they were free of the quay. Soon the barge was  drifting off into the current which flows strong and steady toward Pisa and  the sea. "Cesare," they called, in what were already ghosts' voices, "addio.  A rivederla."

Cesare waved. "A rivederci." Soon they had disappeared, dissolved in the  darkness. Cesare put his hands in his pockets and started to stroll. He  found a stone in the street and began to kick it aimlessly along the  Lungarno. Soon, he thought, I will go and buy a liter fiasco of Chianti. As  he passed the Palazzo Corsini, towering nebulous and fair above him, he  thought: what an amusing world it still is, where things and people can be  found in places where they do not belong. For example, out there on the  river now with a thousand liters of wine are a man in love with Venus, and a  sea captain, and his fat son. And back in the Uffizi . . . He roared aloud.  In the room of Lorenzo Monaco, he remembered amazed, before Botticelli's  Birth of Venus, still blooming purple and gay, there is a hollow Judas tree.

 

 

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