Michael Dibdin: A Rich Full Death

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Michael Dibdin


A Rich Full Death

BOOK ONE

Up at a Villa-Down in the City

1

Florence


6th February ‘55

My dear Prescott,

You will no doubt be surprised to receive another letter so soon, but I have news which cannot await my monthly packet. Prepare yourself for a shock, for I have sad and dramatic tidings: Isabel Eakin, nee Allen, is no more, having passed away yesterday evening under tragic circumstances-of which more in a moment. What a piece of my life-of both our lives-falls into oblivion with her! Death must always diminish the survivors, but when I consider how intimate a part of my life Isabel once was, I feel half-dead myself at the thought of all she has taken with her to the grave.

How vividly I recall those long summer afternoons we spent together-you and I and she, and that freckly cousin whose name and face and indeed everything except her freckles I presently forget. Is it really fifteen years ago? Mighty fine young fellows we thought ourselves then, as I remember; with the bloom of college still fresh on us, like hothouse peaches. I forget exactly how or when we discovered that there were mysteries of which our professors had said nothing (and perhaps had nothing to say), such as the miraculous transformation of scrawny little Isabel-previously the butt of much boyish torment on my part-into a fascinating and powerful figure with capacities of her own for inflicting torment.

I was in love with her, of course. Was I the only one? Own up, Prescott-were you not just as assiduous as I at inventing pretexts for calling at the Allens’ house as often as possible? Strange to think that we stood, without knowing it, at one of the great crossroads of Life: we might have married her, either of us, and then everything would have been utterly different.

Well, well, all that is over now-separated by a desert of sterile years from the comfortable pastures of the Present. For what did happen? You launched yourself energetically on your academic career, married a woman who would loyally support you, and won fresh laurels with every year that passed-modestly at first, but set already on course to your present Parnassian position: a Professor yourself, author of a standard text on ethics-and all this at the age of forty!

I also achieved much-in my dreams. If plans, projects, or proposals counted for aught, I should be numbered among the greatest men of our age! What was I not going to write? An epic poem in twelve books on the War of Independence; Washington, a tragedy in five acts; a three-volume novel about a young man’s picaresque travels through every state of the union, combining Smollett’s dash and colour with the sentimental depths of Young Werther. I was, as you see, going to do much; so much that in the end I did nothing. Not content, like you, to reach for graspable gains, I have remained empty-handed.

And then, to cap so much failure and frustration, came Isabel’s refusal-definitive and irrevocable-of my belated proposal of marriage. I am loath to speak ill of the dead, but she erred-of that I am convinced. At all events, after that I could stand no more: the very streets of Boston sickened me, the air seemed contagious and every face mean, stupid and provincial. I set out for the Old World with a heart as full of high expectations as any of our founding fathers making the journey to the New. Expectations which have been fulfilled, for here I have found minds to my measure, kindred spirits, and a fresh start.

Apart from fleeting appearances in my dreams, I had neither seen nor heard of Isabel for over twelve years when suddenly, in the course of a second-rate ball at the Baths of Lucca last summer, I found myself face to face with her. And when I say her, I mean with that lithe bewitching figure I had last seen amid the apple trees and dappled sunlit vistas of the Allens’ garden-that superb type of American womanhood: vivacious, proud, high-spirited. The long years between had left no mark on her whatever. But then was that not the keynote she perpetually sounded: of one who, whatever befell, remained untouched?

If so, it was an illusion which was most cruelly dispelled last night. Poor child, to end thus!

First, though, let us leaven these sad tidings with some happier ones. Congratulate me, Prescott, for I awake this morning the confirmed acquaintance of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband! Nor shall I stray entirely from my darker theme, for by a bizarre coincidence-if indeed it is no more than that-the circumstances are connected with the terrible details of Isabel’s death.

Yesterday I was invited to dine by James Jackson Jarves, the Ruskinist-I have already recounted how I made his acquaintance apropos the Primitive altarpiece in Sansepolcro he wanted for his collection. That came to nothing, unfortunately, the monks proving too grasping, but the connection between us has remained, and one result was an invitation to Sunday dinner, where I was one of a dozen guests picked from the cream of the Anglo-American community here. (Jarves’s Wednesday dinners are even more select, but I cannot hope for so much as yet.)

At all events, the gathering was an occasion to remember, and not only as a milestone in my standing here. Nevertheless, I was once again disappointed, at heart. How can I explain? It was all very worthy, the conversation was enlightening and cultivated-and yet, and yet! Where was the spark? The question may seem gratuitous, yet it is one which occurs to me with more and more force the longer I stay in this city where one is confronted on every side by evidence of the genius of the Past; where such figures as Giotto, as Dante, as Michelangelo, are as it were one’s daily bread. Where are the names today that might be heard in such company?

On my way home from Jarves’s I encountered a man who, in his own estimation at least, is such a one. I mean Mr Hiram Powers, who rejoices in the happy position of being able to sell copies of his ‘Greek Slavegirl’ for-one hears-some four thousand dollars apiece. Success, I am happy to report, has not had the slightest adverse effect on his character: he has always believed himself to be assured of a place among the immortals and the acclaim of two continents has done nothing to shake this opinion. He is, no doubt, a genius-but whether it be his mid-Western manners or the fawning adulatory throng which surrounds him, I cannot delight in his company. In short, he does not inspire me-although his studio has been a fruitful source of social encounters.

As I was strolling back through the fast-gathering dusk, then, who should I spy ahead of me in the street but just this same Yankee stonecutter. Where was I going? Home; and he? Off to take coffee with the Brownings, who are close friends of his-you may perhaps have seen her pretty sonnet on his Greek slave-piece. Powers’s casual words electrified me, for I have had my sights on Mr and Mrs Browning for some time, although well aware of the challenge; for they are difficult of access-a very social Alp; remote, elevated, and somewhat chilly.

I neither batted an eyelid nor faltered in my step, however; merely remarking as we proceeded down the street together that I had lately gone-after hours, being privileged by a personal contact, for the press of tourists during the day is a horrible example of Democracy in action, making it impossible for any to appreciate what all would enjoy-I had gone, I said, to view the ‘Medici Venus’, which I had long considered the acme of artistic perfection. Indeed-I continued-its inimitable qualities might well cause me, were I a sculptor, to throw away my chisel in sheer despair.

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