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The World Before Her

by Deborah Weisgall

Hardcover, 278 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $25 |


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Book Summary

Two parallel stories, set in Venice a century apart, follow two women and their marriages—Marian Evans, better known as famed English author George Eliot, who is newly married to a man twenty years her junior and in the city on her honeymoon; and sculptor Caroline Spingold, coming unwillingly to the city with her older, wealthy husband to celebrate their tenth anniversary.

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Excerpt: The World Before Her

Chapter 1
Venice, 10 June 1880

The lady wore a sober dress of gray silk
that shimmered like the sea on an
overcast day. It was the silk that first
caught James McNeill Whistler's eye,
the rich ripples of light and darkness,
but the lady held his attention. She was
slender and small in stature, and
Whistler was drawn to her straight, easy
posture, her eager gait. He could not
see her face, but he guessed that she
was not young and not old either —
thirty-five, perhaps.
From the cut of her dress and her
confident progress through the
flocks of pigeons and people milling
about the Piazza San Marco, she was
an Englishwoman. A tall man accompanied
her, and they proceeded with an
assurance that humans and birds alike
would yield the path. The couple had
entered the square from the direction of
the Hôtel de l'Europe, where the
English preferred to stay. Who had
recently arrived? In Venice, news carried
quickly, like sound over water. Maud
would know.
He decided that the lady was one of
those gentlewomen who
moved inside a carapace of their
homeland and on foreign soil disdained
everything not English. Just now, she
would be complaining to her
companion about their accommodations in
Venice's best hotel — and if
Whistler were to encounter her at a
dinner, she would complain to him as
well, after she recalled vaguely that he
was involved in some distasteful
scandal having to do with the eminent
critic John Ruskin, whom of course
she worshiped. Although she would gaze
diligently upon Venice's treasures,
its squalor was what she would remember;
she could understand that better
than its beauty. Beauty lay beyond
borders of feeling she would not permit
herself to cross. Hanging in her country
house would be portraits of her dogs.
Nonetheless, her bearing intrigued
Whistler. He sat at a table at
the Café Florian in a state of
heightened receptivity — alert to the
action of
light, dazzled from his morning's
expedition, his senses prickling with
beauty. He had not yet absorbed what he
had seen, had not yet organized its
illusory perspective of sea and city and
mountaintops. Now, with a kind of
visual elation, he saw everything with
preternatural clarity; he felt as if he
could see emotion.
He had risen at six, fighting his
desire to sleep off the excesses of
the night before; his gondolier,
Cavaldoro, had ferried him into the
lagoon past
the Giudecca to see the snowcapped crags
of the Dolomites rising behind
Venice like a painted scrim, glittering
and hallucinatory in the golden eastern
light. Maud had protested when he kicked
off the sheet. "You paint fog," she
remonstrated. "You paint fog better than
anybody, you say so yourself. Stay
with me — you came home so late." Pink
and yielding she smiled and
showed large pearly teeth.
"You can't paint fog unless you know
what it hides," he had
answered, and slithered out from under
her. Was he doing so only to
demonstrate the limits of his mistress's
hold on him? No — the sight of the
mountains did exalt him, released him
for a moment from ambition and
doubt. But amidst the crowded sense of
urgent amusement in the piazza, his
oppression returned.
He opened his sketchbook and drew the
Englishwoman's figure,
the graceful line of her back and waist,
her opulent skirt — he smudged the
pencil with his thumb to catch its
subdued glimmer — her parasol's dark
ruffled cloud. The lady held the man's
arm and walked slightly behind, yet
she seemed to be leading him. They could
be husband and wife — but they
clung closely, and there was something
tentative about their closeness, as if
it were new. The man's coat of fine,
light wool drooped from his shoulders;
either it was badly tailored or its
wearer had diminished in size. Perhaps the
man was not well. Whistler recalled his
own illness last winter, the
disheartening looseness of his own
clothes. It could be that the man was
recovering, and this journey was part of
his cure. It could be that the woman
loved him.
Undaunted by importuning birds and
beggars, oblivious to the
clamoring guides for hire and the
photographers, with their tripods and
cameras, the couple approached the
Basilica of San Marco. It was shrouded
in scaffolding; the mosaics over the
doorways were being restored, badly.
The air was still crisp and green with
spring. Slender Venetian girls pretended
to modesty as they tugged their black
shawls tight across their breasts and
sashayed in little chirping clusters
through the extravagant light and space of
the piazza. Their mothers, thickened and
slow, kept to the shadows. In hot
robes, priests weary from the weight of
piety trudged across the gray paving
The musicians of Florian's orchestra
had taken their places and
begun their Strauss, and from across the
piazza the rival orchestra at Quadri
played its different waltz. Whistler
relished the cacophony, foreign music for
foreigners: another veil Venice wore to
keep her secrets. She was a great
courtesan, reflecting her visitors back
to themselves while remaining herself a
At the scaffolding the English lady
gestured with her parasol as if
it were a frilled spear. She would be
parroting Mr. John Ruskin's
prescriptions, perpetrating Ass Ruskin's
reverence for each and every blasted
medieval stone, complaining again and
with righteous anger about the
scaffolding that obscured the façade.
The city of Venice had decided on the
restorations, a pity, but the plan had
one great virtue: it had driven Ruskin
mad with impotent rage. He had organized
an international protest — these
treasures belonged to the world, not
only to Venice — which ensured that the
city's government paid no attention to
his objections. Workmen were
replacing those hallowed crumbling
tesserae with their coarse and hideous
version of the past.
So Ruskin had set plodding Mr. John
Wharlton Bunney to paint
the building in exhaustive detail,
preserving a record of each sacred shard.
Bunney had been at it three years
already — wasting his life. Every
afternoon, weather permitting, he set up
his easel among the pigeons and
hoisted his umbrella against the birds'
efforts to improve his work. Bunney
needed noon for his task; oblique dawn
or sunset obscured particularities. He
would be horrified to see what a heresy
Whistler had committed — painting
the basilica at night, scattering
specifics like so many fireworks,
the church to his will and reducing it
from stones to light, from monument to
shape and mood, changing it from a
shrine to the past into a portent of the
future, including the scaffolding in his
Whistler caught a glimmer of red in the
man's hand — the
ubiquitous Baedeker, telling them what
to see on which day, as if they could
not trust their own eyes. San Marco was
always the first stop. Only
monuments for them; he was sure they
would worship at only bona fide,
guidebook-certified Sights. They would
disdain the small streets he had been
drawing — no Art there, no famous
façades, only cats and girls and brick —
a living Venice as beautiful as their
dead one.
He shook his head at his own vehemence,
but he was betting his
life on the Venice he saw. He was
forty-five, feeling the shortness of time —
and of money. He fished coins from his
pocket, counted them, and decided
he had better wait to have breakfast.
Maud Franklin was meeting him soon;
he would treat her to a coffee here at
Florian's, a public coffee, to atone for
leaving her alone so often while he went
out in the evening.
The English pair seemed to have changed
their minds. The lady
reopened her parasol, they conferred
under its shade, then turned and
crossed toward the arcade, skirting
Florian's tables and chairs. The woman
moved with an elastic, energetic gait,
almost a lope, as if she were
suppressing the urge to run. She let go
of her companion's arm, and he
lagged behind, apparently unwilling to
compromise his dignity, or perhaps too
exhausted to keep up with her. Had she
fled from her dog-loving husband and
escaped with this man to raptures in
She reached the loggia, just past the
last rank of Florian's tables,
and then abruptly she stopped, furled
her parasol, and bent over, studying the
pavement, searching for something,
proceeding at a shuffle as if she had lost
a jewel or a keepsake. But she did not
seem distressed, and she was
oblivious to the puzzled glances of
passersby. Whistler closed his
sketchbook, got up from his table, and
sauntered under the loggia,
pretending to examine an abysmal copy of
a Titian Madonna in a shop
Suddenly the lady stood straight. "Oh,
Johnnie!" she
exclaimed. "Johnnie! Here, I found one!
Look here! Hurry!" She laughed. "Not
that it will run away!" English, of
course. She spoke as if they were alone,
sure that nobody could understand what
she was saying — if she had
noticed Whistler at all, she would
assume him to be a picturesque native,
with his shabby clothes and disheveled
hair. It was his intention, wherever he
traveled, to become invisible, to
observe without being seen.
But she had a beautiful voice. It
astonished him: rich, low, and
youthful, resonant as singing. There was
something strenuous about it as
well, a timbre faintly discordant, as if
the lilt cost her an effort. He could
imagine her face: thin, petulant lips,
upturned little nose, pale complexion
webbed with fine lines, holding a memory
of that ephemeral English
luminescence, and incongruous dark eyes,
large, black eyes and arched
eyebrows to match the musical,
melancholy richness of her voice.
She pointed with her parasol to a spot
in the gallery's pavement —
rectangular slabs of Veronese stone:
orange marble mottled with white and
ochre like a paint-spattered floor.
"Johnnie! A snail!"
Whistler was astonished; one did not
seek out snails in Venice.
The man she called Johnnie reached her
and peered at the
ground. "My dear Beatrice," he said, "I
see nothing."
His voice was thin, enervated. Whistler
groaned. My Beatrice —
four syllables; the man's Italian
pronunciation was execrable. Despite the
lady's fascination with gastropods,
those two could have had ruskin branded
on their foreheads. Beatrice, the girl
Dante loved from afar, how medieval;
certainly a man would not address his
wife like that — she would laugh at
She was saying, "Just here. Do you see
— a spiral, a whorl, like a
"A natural pattern in the rock."
"No. A snail." She touched the curves
with the toe of her
boot. "You see? The spiral, each rib
delineated? An enormous, petrified
snail — its shell has turned to stone. A
ghost in stone. You can see the
chambers. This marble was once sand, the
sea floor; we are stepping on the
depths of an ancient ocean."
"So you will be my fish as well as my
angel — my guide under the
sea as well as through the heavens?"
"For that you'll want Monsieur Verne,
I'm afraid." The lady laughed
again. Her enthusiastic lecture was not
at all in keeping with the peevish
gentlewoman Whistler had assumed her to
be. "No," she continued, "this
ocean has dried up and been buried, then
quarried from the earth. Here, this
snail — like the fossils in the chalk
cliff s — is evidence of that; it is
of time — of thousands, millions of
years. George found the snails in these
paving stones fifteen years ago, when we
first came to Venice. We hunted
them everywhere — we even found one on
the front of a church." Her voice
had changed and grown softer. She
paused. Her head was lowered, possibly
from sadness. Was she a widow? She was
not wearing mourning. He
yearned to see her face; her nose would
be stronger than he had first
imagined, long and narrow, her lips
fuller, her complexion olive, exotic. "We
made them our secret." Her voice had
regained — almost — its animation.
The man took her arm again, possessing
her. "And now, my
dearest, they will be ours. But you will
have to teach me. I am not very good
at that sort of thing. For me it must be
far more obvious, not all swirled
together like pudding."
Again that lovely laugh, pliable and
generous. "Well, then, I will."
She started off , intent on the hunt.
The gentleman trailed behind her, letting
her tug at his arm. He turned his head,
and as he glanced at the
reproductions of devotional paintings in
the shop window Whistler finally saw
his face. A square jaw, finely arched
brows, full lips, a straight nose: a
handsome, serious man, solid and
established, a man of consequence. But
the mouth was melancholy, the pale
cheeks were thin and the bones too
prominent. Sick circles shadowed his
deep-set eyes. He seemed distracted,
almost blind, as if he needed a guide,
not through heaven or hell, but here on
earth. He looked as though he could
barely see where he was walking, much
less pick out ancient snails lurking in
the pavement.
"I want one more," she said without
looking up. "Only one more
snail." She stopped abruptly. "You're
not tired, are you? I seem to be
indefatigable." She laughed.
"Yes," he said. "You are."
"Am I already too much?"
"No, no," he assured her, but his voice
was subdued. He would,
Whistler supposed, be considering his
future trailing after a lady naturalist.
"Then what shall we do? What is your
pleasure? You've seen the
snails — let's see San Marco, before it
closes. And we are here." She
stepped out from under the shade of the
loggia, opened her parasol, and
started in the direction of the
basilica. Something in her bearing had
changed — her gait had slowed, or her
assurance had diminished; something
rendered her vulnerable. Whistler had
followed them for hardly ten paces
when they were set upon by one of the
photographers who stalked the
square like bandits, prepared to waylay
any foreigner who ventured within
Whistler recognized the man; Leporello
he called himself because
he boasted that he kept a list of all
the illicit goings-on in Venice. Regardless
of the season he wore a grimy,
threadbare overcoat as voluminous as the
cloth that covered his head while he
aimed his camera. The photographer
accosted them — did he know who they
were? "Mister? Madam? Inglese? "
Of course they were English, and the
English couple of course
would ignore him. To Whistler's surprise
the woman stopped and addressed
the photographer: "Buon giorno." And to
the gentleman she said, "Johnnie,
wouldn't it be nice to have a photograph
of you here — I have no pictures of
you at all."
"You don't need one, my dearest,
because I will always be with
you. Please, no," he protested, in that
querulous tone. "Cameras make me
nervous — as if that eye sees all my
"What secrets would you have?" she teased.
While she was speaking, the
photographer had closed in.
Spreading his arms as if about to launch
into an aria, he gestured toward the
grand architecture surrounding them.
"What is your pleasure? The Palace of
the Doges? The Campanile? The basilica?"
"Il palazzo dei Dogi," the lady
answered. Her accent was really
quite good. She stepped aside, out of
the scene. The gentleman tried to
escape, but Leporello had maneuvered
between him and the lady. The
gentleman was trapped. Whistler was
amused, if a little sorry for the
Englishman, as the photographer did a
little dance that blocked retreat.
"Prego! " the gentleman admonished.
"Prego! "
The photographer reached into his
overcoat's sagging pocket and
pulled out a handful of crumbs, which he
tossed onto the ground at the
gentleman's feet. Whistler had witnessed
this often; Leporello seemed
convinced that pigeons, descending from
the heavens like a flock of filthy
angels, would ensure a large tip.
Suddenly the gentleman was engulfed in
flapping wings. "Oh!" he
exclaimed. He flung out his hands,
defending himself against the swirling
birds. Alarmed, the lady whirled around,
and at last Whistler saw her. He
stared, astonished. Her face was large
and bony: a long jaw, a high-bridged,
exuberant, and lumpy nose, slack lips.
In dismaying contrast to her graceful
figure and supple voice, the lady was —
she was ugly; there was no other
word for it. Moreover, she was far from
young; she was decades past thirty-
five. Whistler gazed at her, startled
and fascinated, and as he watched, her
face changed. When she realized that her
companion was beating back an
onslaught of pigeons more interested in
pecking at the food at his feet than at
him, a mischievous smile started around
her mouth and her eyes. Her eyes,
large and luminous, the palest
blue-gray, were beautiful, their expression
tender and humorous, open to the world.
Whistler felt a shiver of recognition.
But seeing the man's distress, the lady
composed herself, rid her
face of mirth, advanced toward the
pigeons, and kicked efficiently, causing
them to scatter. "Oh, Johnnie, they're
as tame as hens," she scolded, taking
his arm. "You must deal with them firmly."
The gentleman shuddered, now more
humiliated than
frightened. "They seemed to come from
"Mi dispiace! " Trying to salvage the
situation, the photographer
bent in a low, extravagant bow. Then he
lifted his eyes and scrutinized the
couple. "Ah," he said, nodding,
understanding everything. "Per favore,
signora, mi scusi di nuovo. La prego di
perdonarmi per avere turbato suo
"What was he saying?" the gentleman
"He was begging forgiveness for having
upset you."
"What else did he say?"
"Nothing else."
"What did he call me? Figlio. Son. I
understand something, you
know." He blushed deep red.
The lady cringed — the blow was to his
pride, not to hers — but
put her hand on his arm to quiet him. "I
kept chickens when I was little,
Johnnie; they can be quite terrifying."
The quality of effort, of strenuousness,
had returned. She looked up and caught
Whistler staring. Her gray eyes
narrowed in irritation.
Abashed, he turned away and was
relieved to see that Maud
Franklin was sitting at a table at
Florian's. She must have arrived while he
was absorbed with the English couple.
Maud had draped a black shawl
across her shoulders; she had mastered
the Venetian art of hugging the
shawl close to the swell of her breast,
and with her red curls and pale skin
she could have been a Venetian girl. She
had arranged herself in a graceful
contrapposto for his pleasure. Faithful
Maud. There was no solution; if he
married her, their situation would
worsen. Nobody would receive either of
them. They might carry it off in
America, where birth mattered less, but he
could not retreat to America and go home
a failure. Maud could have refused
to follow him to Venice; it had been her
idea to leave their infant daughter with
a foster family. "I am not a nurse," she
had maintained, but she had nursed
Whistler through the freezing winter
when he was too sick to work.
He was working now, producing pastels
and etchings like a man
possessed, abandoning her all day long.
He tiptoed up behind Maud and
clapped his hands over her eyes. "Chi
sono? " he asked in his thickest Italian
"Jim. Who else?" Maud pried his fingers
away, and turned her
long, graceful neck, and smiled up at him.
"You weren't even surprised," he
"I might have been if this were the
first time."
Whistler signaled to a waiter.
"How was your snow? Was it everything
you hoped? Well, it must
have been — it's made you extravagant.
What are we having?"
"Only a coffee. I wish you had come
with me."
"Next time."
"It doesn't happen so often that you
can see them."
Maud smiled as if the thought of
mountains was enough. "You're
quite windblown — you look positively
galvanized!" She attempted to smooth
the streak of white hair that sprang
like a bolt of lightning from his forehead.
Whistler twisted, out of her reach.
"Maud — tell me — you'll
know, I'm sure — I saw two people." He
described the couple, the woman
with the beautiful voice, the gaunt man.
"They're still here , walking under the
loggia, across the piazza." It would be
impossible to find them in the crowd.
But Maud nodded and delicately sipped
her coffee. "Why, that
would be Mr. and Mrs. John Cross." Maud
heard secrets before their owners
realized they were keeping them. "They
have just arrived; this is their wedding
"Ah," Whistler nodded. "She could be
his mother. No matter — I
would like to know Mrs. Cross."
"You know of her already, I am sure."
Maud smiled, enjoying her
advantage. "She was Marian Evans before
she married." She smiled again. "A
"A novelist? I don't read lady
novelists." He frowned. "I've never
heard of her."
"Yes, you have," Maud teased. "And
you've read her books.
Everybody has."
"Tell me, Maud."
"She writes under a nom de plume."
"I have no idea." He grasped her wrist.
"Maud, tell me!"
"You can't make me!"
"I'm sorry." He let his hand linger on
the soft skin of the inside of
her arm, and Maud relented. "She is
George Eliot!"
Of course. He had seen that face in
engravings, that famous
ugliness; an image could not convey how
her light eyes and musical voice
mitigated her unfortunate bones.
Maud shrugged. "When George Lewes died,
everybody said that
they had had the most perfect marriage."
She lowered her eyes and said
quietly, "No children, though. She was
too clever for that. And he already had
three — at least."
Whistler tried to imagine the baby Maud
had a year ago — his
child too — what that infant would look
like now; he tried to conjure emotions
warmer than wonder and annoyance.
Maud went on, her voice playful, her
expression guarded. She
was, he saw, fearful of displeasing him.
She leaned toward him, her back
straight, her neck white and soft, her
shawl tight. "I wonder how Mr. Cross
"Maud, you're wicked. Perhaps he
doesn't have to — manage."
"Everybody's talking about them. But
everybody's always talked
about her." Maud laughed thinly. "It
makes no difference, though — she's
gotten her way."
Whistler heard the quavering edge of
jealousy. He took her hand;
it was not a lady's hand: her peasant
palm broad, her tapered fingers still
rough from winter. He remembered that
George Eliot had lived for years with
a man who was not her husband. But she
was a personage, a great writer;
she had exempted herself — she could do
as she wished. Poor Maud — all
she could hope for was that he would
immortalize her in his paintings. So far
that had not happened, and he doubted if
that kind of fame — notoriety,
really — would earn her invitations to
dinner, let alone proposals of marriage.
He and Maud never talked about love or
discussed permanence; he
suspected that he did love her, but his
aff ection was stunted by its
inappropriateness. He ran his spoon
around the inside of the cup, scraping off
the clinging milk foam.
Maud leaned back in her chair and swung
her foot in time to the
music. "Do you know where they are going
"How could I know that?"
"They are going to take tea with your
friends Mr. and Mrs.
He raised one admonishing eyebrow. "You
know very well they are
not my friends."

John Cross clenched his fists. "That
blasted photographer!" His voice was
pinched with distress.
She laid a reassuring hand on his
forearm. "Don't be angry for me,
Johnnie. He was only doing what he
imagined would please us. Most people
want pigeons in their photograph; he
couldn't know that you didn't. He meant
to be kind — and he tried to apologize.
At any rate, I am not so thin-skinned
as that." She gazed at him in the
expectant way he found discomfiting and
added, "It was an honest mistake that he
"I don't understand why people can't
mind their own business."
"Do you want to go to the hotel? I'll
do what you want."
"I need a moment. I just need to catch
my breath." He studied her,
alert to the shade of impatience in her
voice. "Then you are not unhappy?"
"Of course not. And you should be
pleased that you look so
young and handsome."
"You are an angel, a saint."
"I don't know about that. You need not
flatter me in return." But
she smiled again, and he was relieved.
It daunted him, sometimes, to realize
that this great soul had been entrusted
to his care, that he was responsible
for her happiness — she was, really, a
saint. His mother had worshiped
Marian, whose books had given so much to
the world and who had been
such a generous friend.
She headed back to the shade of the
loggia. "We might want to
go to the Accademia. It's quieter
there." She stopped abruptly, avoiding a
flock of nuns. Moving toward prayer or
toward acts of charity, starched
wimples sharp as beaks, they swept with
holy determination along the
pavement, threatening to engulf Johnnie
and Marian in their dove-gray habits.
Johnnie shuddered.
"What is it?" his wife asked.
"Oh, nothing, nothing — it's only the
nuns," he said, with a self-
deprecating smile. "They remind me of —
of pigeons. But Marian, I'm not
sure I'm up to great art quite yet.
After all, it's only our first day."
"Yes, that's true. Then what shall we do?"
He detected her frustration. "Well,
actually, I've made an
"But whom do we know here — besides the
"You'll see." John Cross led his wife
around the perimeter of the
piazza, urging her forward when she
slowed to tease out a snail from a
pattern in the mottled marble. "Dearest,
come along. The pavement won't
shut for lunch." But he stopped to buy
her violets from a girl selling flowers.
Marian smiled. "You spoil me."
"I hope I do," he answered. "It's my
intention." He peered into the
windows of a shop offering silks and
velvets and announced, "We must order
you a gown." Next door, a shop displayed
glass from Murano. "And what
about a chandelier in the entrance hall
at Cheyne Walk? To remind us of
Marian laughed. "Johnnie, I believe you
would buy the entire city. If
you must possess that chandelier, then
we will have to telegraph to be sure
that there is a place for it in the
plans. I worry that changes will delay
"It's our house, and we can do with it
what we like. Besides, they
have all summer to accomplish their
work." It was endearing to Johnnie how
much she thought was impossible, how
little she desired. He led her along
the gallery beneath the Venetian library
and stopped at a small display
window where an intricate necklace in
the Etruscan manner, beaded gold set
with pearls and diamonds, was arranged
on a velvet cushion. "What do you
think?" he asked.
"An extravagant ornament," Marian
answered. "Quite luxurious,
reclining there on its pillow."
"I mean, do you fancy it?"
Marian hesitated. "It's very beautiful."
"I absolutely agree." He rang the
"Won't we be late for your mysterious
appointment?" she asked.
"This is my appointment."
"With a jeweler? Why, Johnnie? To buy
trinkets for your sisters?"
He smiled indulgently; she never
thought of herself.
"And then we can find masks and puppets
for the grandchildren.
Perhaps I'll find something for
Charles's Gertrude here. I have no
jewels from
Charles's father to give her, except for
this." She touched the cameo at her
"You are the one who needs something
else," he said
impatiently. "You wear that all the time."
"Of course I do. George gave it to me —"
But he was her husband now; Johnnie
felt a pinch of annoyance.
She should wear a gift from him.
She went on. "And you gave your mother
one like it. You
remember — you admired this cameo one
evening, and the next day you
bought her one. A lovely one, a locket.
You have such good taste, Johnnie. I
suppose, though, that I cannot believe
in ornaments — for myself."
"Are they so dangerous? Are they like
idols one is forbidden to
believe in?"
"Certainly not, but jewels are for
beautiful women, not —"
"My dear, I find you lovely," he
protested. It would not do to tell her
that he cared not at all what she looked
like. It was her spirit that ravished
"Johnnie, I am speaking the truth. And,
more than that — they
imply possession."
"But you are mine, are you not? You
wear my ring." She looked
down at her left hand, where the new
wedding band gleamed, brilliant and
"Well, Mrs. Cross," Johnnie teased.
"What do you say to that?"
"It still surprises me," she answered.
"It's like a magic charm,
changing everything." After a moment,
she added with her unsettling
smile, "And anyway, Johnnie, it is my
ring now."
To his alarm she raised her hand as if
she might caress his cheek
there on the street. But she drew back
as a tall boy with olive skin and dark
eyes opened the door. Lean and pliant,
the boy bowed, ushering them up a
flight of stone stairs, along a gallery,
and into a small room with a leather-
topped table occupying the center. The
walls were upholstered in dark green
leather: an ostentatious opulence. A
small bronze statue stood on the table:
a naked youth with one arm upraised, his
lithe body caught on the verge of
manhood. Johnnie looked away; in the
presence of a woman, nudity, even in
miniature, even in bronze, made him uneasy.
"How beautiful he is!" Marian exclaimed.
Before Johnnie could answer, a thin man
with a sharp, prominent
nose and dark lips that stretched over
long teeth entered the room. "Good
day," he said in English. "Please, may I
help you? I am Giuseppe de Levis.
And you are Mr. Cross?"
"I am, and this is my wife."
"But how did you know?" Marian asked in
De Levis bowed. "Mr. Bunney sent word
that you might be paying
a visit. I am honored."
"Johnnie, you consulted Mr. Bunney? When?"
"Oh, a note on the back of my card —
I'll show him what we've
accomplished when we take tea with him
and Mrs. Bunney."
"How clever you are, Johnnie; but what
will we have
"I should like to see the necklace in
the window downstairs."
The proprietor beckoned to the boy, who
was surely his son, and
handed him a little key. The boy slipped
from the room. The jeweler turned to
Marian. "Signora Eliot, if I may say so,
I have read your books — in
English — and I have especially admired
Daniel Deronda. Most extraordinary;
a wonderful book for my people. Jews are
not often heroes."
John Cross had anticipated a
transaction, not an intimate
encounter. The jeweler was too forward.
Moreover, Johnnie agreed with those
critics who observed that the Jewish
element in Daniel Deronda had
weakened the book. Certainly it made
Johnnie uncomfortable, though he had
liked the character Deronda well enough
at the start of the story, when
Deronda was a young man of obscure
origins. His sympathy had practically
evaporated when Deronda, having
discovered that he was a Jew, chose to
embrace his race. Johnnie had thought it
unnecessary — unrealistic, even.
Not that he would ever discuss this with
his wife — when the book was first
published, he had asked the question in
a general way, and Marian had
dismissed it with a remark about obscure
histories. Later, George had
warned him off ; George had always
shielded her from adverse criticism, even
well-meaning questions from her closest
She was a paradox. Her actions — and
some of her ideas — were
so radical, while she was by nature
deeply conservative. He understood what
marrying him had meant to her: the
profound comfort it had afforded her soul,
putting to rest a guilt, a lingering
pain of transgression that even a
quarter of a
century of happiness with George Lewes
could not lift from her conscience.
She was independent of mind, but she
needed to be cared for. To make her
an honest woman had been the happiest
moment of Johnnie's life. He
supposed he must protect her now, not
only from criticism but from praise.
He watched Marian collect herself; she
became grave and
reserved. This was how he had supposed
she would be as his wife, self16
possessed and prudent. It seemed,
though, that this was her public
demeanor. During the past five weeks she
had gathered a dangerous energy.
He had imagined her ardor would be
spiritual, quiet, a concentrated stillness,
but instead she had displayed a physical
eagerness and appetite that
troubled him and left him confused and
even frightened. She was, as she
said, indefatigable. But it was more
than that, and it was causing him terrible
anxiety. He had lost weight; he craved
"Thank you for your kindness, signore."
Marian smiled her gentle,
distant smile, serene as carved marble,
the smile Johnnie adored. She went
on. "But I must tell you that Signora
Eliot exists only in my books. I am
Signora Cross."
"Of course. I apologize, and I hope
that I can accommodate your
wishes." The jeweler's English was
almost perfect, the vowels a shade too
rich, the consonants a touch too
precise: English words set to Italian
"My husband's wishes." Marian smiled
graciously at Johnnie.
The boy returned and presented the
necklace on its pillow to the
jeweler, who held it out to John Cross.
Johnnie lifted it; the pearls and stones
hung in a gorgeous cascade. "It is
finely done. Very fine." He spoke with the
authority of a man accustomed to luxury
and experienced in the business of
its acquisition. He held it up so that
the diamonds glittered. "What do you
think, my dear?"
"I can see it around the neck of a
Roman lady — Terentia,
"Cicero's wife was a formidable woman,"
said the jeweler. "Too
much in love with her own power. A
dishonest woman —"
Johnnie was perplexed by his wife's
quick, hungry smile as she
answered. "Or she was prudent, while her
husband was profligate."
"He was a public man, a politician."
It seemed to Johnnie that they had
forgotten the necklace. "Will
you try —" he began, but Marian was
already speaking.
"Her fortune made his career possible.
And then he divorced her. I
cannot forgive him, but she did,
evidently. Did you know that she lived
to be a
hundred and three? I'm not sure I would
wish for that. Oh, this necklace — it
requires at least a countess, which I
certainly am not."
"I never much cared for Cicero in
school," Johnnie interrupted. "I
couldn't sort out his grammar. But the
Americans — I have spent some time
in America . . ." He paused. Against his
better judgment, he was engaging
this Jewish jeweler in conversation.
"And?" encouraged Marian.
"Oh, it's nothing."
"Tell us, please."
"Well, the Americans quite like him,
you know, because they have
their republic. They take him as their
civic model, quote him everywhere —"
"And only sixteen years after his
death, Rome had an emperor,"
Marian interrupted. "I'm sorry, my dear
— go on."
"Yes, well, I don't really have
anything else to say. It never
occurred to me that Cicero had a wife. I
thought he spent all his time orating.
Now, Mrs. Cross, although you are not
Mrs. Cicero —"
"Mr. Cross, you are good for me!" His
wife laughed, and he could
not be sure that she wasn't teasing him.
He approached her with the
necklace. He would have liked to drape
her in pearls as some statues of
saints were adorned; he would have liked
to give her rings for every finger.
She stepped back. "You intend to put
this on my neck?"
"I insist."
"Does not Deronda return an Etruscan
necklace to Gwendolyn?"
asked the jeweler.
"Why, yes, of course!" Marian
exclaimed. "How well you know the
book, signore. But I didn't imagine that
trinket to be anywhere near as fine as
this. If it had been, I certainly would
have let her keep it and pawn something
"To my mind," said Johnnie, "this
necklace comes closer to the
one Grandcourt gave to Gwendolyn."
"Grandcourt forced her to wear those
jewels," countered de
Levis. "The diamonds were heavy
shackles, brutti — ugly. Brutal, like
"But Gwendolyn finished him off ,"
Johnnie retorted; this jeweler
assumed that his knowledge of Marian's
work gave him the right to intimacy
with its author.
"Listen to you," said Marian.
"Discussing my books as if I weren't
here! And Johnnie, it is not at all
clear what happened between Gwendolyn
and Grandcourt in that little boat. She
might have been unable to save him
from drowning."
"Of course, my dear, you should know.
Now stay still, please, just
for a moment!"
But Marian shifted her head as Johnnie
tried to drape the
necklace around her throat, and one of
its fine links snagged on the catch of
her cameo. "Oh!" she exclaimed, as if
she were hooked, a hapless fish.
Signor de Levis hurried toward her with
a silver looking-glass, and
she tried and failed to untangle the
chain. "Johnnie, please — you must help
me." The jeweler stepped away, and
Johnnie gingerly extricated the
"There," he said. "It was nothing. My
dear, you must unpin the
"But this necklace does not suit me."
"I thought you said that it was very
"It is. Not for me, though, not for me."
He felt her sliding away from him,
slipping through the net of his
adoration. But he heard the agitation in
her voice; she was not dissembling.
He was too slow to catch her shifting
moods. "I'm so sorry — I shouldn't have
forced my desire on you." He took her
hand. "You will forgive me?"
"Of course, Johnnie; really, there's
nothing to forgive. You are so
very generous. But I worry that we are
wasting Signor de Levis's time. He has
no souvenirs, only precious ornaments."
De Levis protested. "Please, signora,
stay as long as you like. I
do not care if you buy anything at all.
Your admiration is enough."
"Marian, we must have something; I
insist. Something smaller —
a brooch, I think." He smiled at his
wife. "Something with emeralds,
perhaps" — he glanced at de Levis —
"emeralds, as in Middlemarch."
"Emeralds," mused the jeweler.
"Dorothea chooses emeralds,
does she not?"
"For their spiritual beauty," Johnnie
said, and smiled.
But Marian exclaimed, exasperated,
"Well! You would think that I
wrote about nothing but jewels!" She
tried to smile and mitigate her
outburst. "And I am not my characters,"
she added rather too sharply, with a
glance in Johnnie's direction.
"Emeralds," he repeated. He wanted them
for her; she could not
resist emeralds.
"I will show you what I have." Signor
de Levis opened a cabinet
concealed behind a leather panel and
withdrew a tray partitioned into
compartments, containing an array of
brooches. He placed the tray on the
table and once again whispered to the
boy, who left the room. Johnnie
wished that the jeweler were as
unobtrusive as his shadowy son.
"Johnnie, you must choose." Marian
smiled. "I cannot be trusted."
She had regained her composure, and her
voice was once more modulated
and calm.
"What appeals to me won't necessarily
please you," he said.
She pointed to a circular brooch in the
form of a golden
lattice. "Didn't your mother have one
very much like that?"
"Why, yes. My father gave it to her —
come to think of it, he
bought it in Venice — possibly even here."
"It had to have been here," said de
Levis. "This is a piece that my
grandfather devised and that we still
make; it was based on a pattern that his
father, my great-grandfather, invented."
"Your family have been jewelers for a
long time."
"Goldsmiths and jewelers since we came
to Venice from
John Cross lifted the brooch from its
tray. "Mother wore it
always — even at the end. I used to pin
it to her collar; she told me that it
reminded her of her eternal reward — she
knew she would meet Father
again." He returned the brooch to the
tray, and his hand lingered on the jewel.
He straightened his shoulders, bracing
himself. When the sadness passed
he said briskly, "Perhaps you would like
to try it on?"
She hesitated, then shook her head and
started to speak, but
stopped herself as de Levis's son came
back with a small leather case.
"If I might," the jeweler said, taking
the box from his son. He
opened it and placed it on the table
beside the tray. Inside lay a brooch:
arabesques of gold surrounding an
emerald. The arabesques were the coils of
a serpent lacing itself through the
boughs of a tree blooming with pearl buds.
The emerald, a deep, clear green that
condensed light to a liquid intensity,
hung like a fruit.
"This is exquisite," said Marian.
Johnnie resolved to have the
brooch. It would be expensive, far more
than he had intended to spend. But
he could afford it; perhaps the
jeweler's admiration for his wife would
the price.
De Levis removed the brooch from its
case and held it up to one of
the high windows. "This is a very fine
emerald, one of the finest my family has
possessed. This is a piece to which I am
quite attached. Indeed, I thought
never to sell it."
"Perhaps you should not have shown it
to us," John Cross said.
"I could not resist," de Levis parried.
"I made it for my own
pleasure, modeled on a brooch in a
portrait by Titian."
"Which one?" Marian asked eagerly.
"Where may I see it?"
"Alas, signora, it is in the collection
of a family, the lady's
descendants. She was of my race. I had
an ancestor — I bear his name — I
would like to think that ancestor made
the jewel in the portrait."
"Did your ancestor make that marvelous
"He did."
"It is Apollo, is it not?"
"Or David," said de Levis. "The hand is
empty. He could be holding
the head of Goliath or a knife to flay
Marsyas; he could be either, or both."
"I imagine that as a Jew your ancestor
de Levis cultivated
Johnnie was relieved to detect a note
of censure in his wife's
comment, but the jeweler nodded as if
she had articulated a truth.
She added, "You might be reluctant to
part with the brooch."
De Levis inclined his head. "There is a
time for everything."
"Who was the lady whose portrait Titian
"She was a brilliant lady, a musician
and a poetess, renowned
throughout Venice, and she was also very
beautiful." He handed Marian the
brooch, and she held it in her palm and
traced the sinuous loops of the
serpent's body with her finger. "Then
the lady was a courtesan?" As she
turned the brooch to the light, the
green flared and deepened. "You have even
worked the snake's scales," she said.
"What does it matter who she was?"
Johnnie blurted. He took the
brooch from Marian and scrutinized it.
"Isn't the flaw in this emerald a bit
"This occlusion is as small as one can
hope to find in a stone of
this size," explained de Levis. "And it
is off to one side and so does not affect
its ability to collect light. The
signore is, of course, aware that it is
the nature
of every emerald to exhibit some
irregularity. It is like a human being
in that
regard. We love it all the more for its
fragility and its flaws."
"But my wife is flawless." Johnnie
smiled at Marian. The jeweler
was right; this was an exceptionally
beautiful emerald. It was not overly large,
but its color was mesmerizing, and he
had to admit that the setting was as
fine as the stone. He wanted this for
her; this was not a jewel a son would
buy for his mother. "Try it, please, my
dear," he asked.
She removed the cameo from her blouse.
Johnnie threaded the pin
of the brooch through the lace of her
collar and centered the ornament over
the hollow of her throat. It settled,
perfectly balanced, against the knobs of
collarbone. He stepped back. "There," he
announced with satisfaction.
She took up the looking glass again,
and Johnnie saw her frown at
her reflection.
"Its effect is wonderful," he reassured
her. "The emerald lends your
eyes a green cast, and it gives your
complexion a tinge of gold. Turn your
head toward the light and look in the
mirror." Her expression eased; the jewel
did infuse her face with grace. "Well,
Mrs. Cross, what do you think?"
He saw in her reflection surprise and
"If Signor de Levis would let it go —"
she said.
"Of course he will," said Johnnie. "It
is yours. My wedding present
to you."
"I will walk around with my hands at my
"You will get used to it, my dear." He
touched his lips gently to
her forehead. "And now I must have a
word with Signor de Levis."
The jeweler gazed at the brooch, then
smiled at Marian. "I am
happy this is going to you, signora.
Would you like to wear it now?"
"Certainly." Johnnie spoke for her.
"In that case, let me put your cameo
away." He carefully tucked
the carved brooch into the leather case
and presented it to Marian. "Value is
not always measured in terms of price,"
he said.
The boy reappeared and led Marian back
along the corridor to
another small, sumptuous room. Its
leather walls were hung with mirrors and
painted views of Venice; two large
windows, with a little writing desk between
them, overlooked the Piazza San Marco.
The windows were open, and their
gauze curtains fluttered in the breeze.
A cacophony of waltzes ascended
from the cafés, mixed with the humming
of the crowd and the percussive
flapping of the wings of pigeons.
Marian drew aside the curtains and
looked down at the scene as if
she were watching a pantomime. Gently
she put the little casket holding the
cameo George had given her on the desk.

Something old: on the morning of her
wedding, Marian held the cameo up to
her collar. Even today? Not to wear it
on her wedding day would be
dishonest. And George would have wanted
her to take this step, she was
convinced, or she would not be doing it.
She steadied herself against a small
swell of uncertainty and pinned the
ornament on.
She inhaled to feel against her ribs
the perfect fit of the gray silk
costume. Johnnie had chosen it — gray
tinged with blue to match her eyes.
Its cut showed off her narrow waist, and
she was pleased and abashed that
from behind she appeared so youthful. No
ghosts of beauty haunted her, and
at sixty, she was not so changed as
other women. She brushed out her hair,
the auburn stranded with gray but still
lustrous. With the back of her hand
she stroked the pillow, George's pillow,
which she had not been able to
remove from beside hers. She laid her
head on his pillow to conjure one last
time his sweet proximity.

In the little sitting room overlooking
the piazza, Marian felt vaguely
discontented, and she was suddenly
tired. Last night she had not slept well;
it might have been the bed. She touched
the jewel casket. Another small
betrayal — but she must stop thinking
like that. It was a laying to rest.
"Had I been a theologian," George had
once said to her as they
rested in their big, comfortable bed, "I
would be far more concerned with
heaven's furnishings than with its
hierarchies of angels." He rolled onto his
side, facing her, his light brown hair
curling exuberantly after sleep. "What do
you think? Do newly arrived souls join
the ranks immediately upon
admission — a quick hello to family and
friends and off to be fitted for a robe
and a halo? Or does desire survive
death? If it were up to me, heaven would
be full of beds."
"This bed is heaven enough for me," she
had answered. "Which is
good, since I doubt that you and I would
be sent to heaven — if there were
one. Anyway, I don't think I'd want to
go to a place, or whatever heaven is —
a state, a condition — from which all
earthly desire has been refined. And I
hope you wouldn't, either."
She believed in no afterlife and found
no comfort in the anticipation
of a celestial reunion. The new brooch
lay heavily against her throat; in even
the most distant of her reflections
repeated in the mirrors she could make out
the snake's undulating gold. She could
not escape her image, and it was
strange to see herself so adorned,
strange and thrilling. To possess
something so voluptuous made her almost
ashamed, as if she had been
seduced. Maybe in marriage there could
be no seduction; maybe her luck
with George had derived from the
precariousness of their situation.
She and George would have discussed the
price of the brooch and
decided that it was too dear. They would
have laughed at the extravagance.
She and Johnnie did not laugh like that
— from shared folly or even from
shared discovery. Their laughter was
carefully constructed, achieved. She
should not compare.
Anyway, money was Johnnie's business,
the material world his
arena: buying and selling, gauging the
reliability of investments. He had
attended meticulously to every detail of
the arrangements for their
honeymoon and fretted that due to him
some connection might be missed,
some indispensable piece of baggage
mislaid. They had been reading Dante
together, but Dante did not supply the
words for timetable, first-class
compartment, or porter.
Dante had brought them together; they
had to spend their
honeymoon in Italy. Reading Dante: what
began as mutual consolation — for
the death of George Lewes, for the death
of Johnnie's mother, within a week
of each other — had flowered into love.

George had died in November, the darkest
part of the year. For almost two
months afterward, she could bear to see
nobody but his eldest son, Charles;
the first visitor she permitted was
Johnnie Cross. She had to attend to her
finances; that had been her excuse to
herself. On that January day, just a
year and a half ago, he had brought from
his mother's conservatory a
gardenia on the verge of bloom. "Put it
in a window," he commanded, "and
remember that the leaves must be
sprinkled every morning." Marian obeyed,
and within a week the gardenia's perfume
filled the parlor.
Since the beginning of their
friendship, Johnnie had been in the
habit of bringing her flowers, and she
was touched by his considerate
frivolities. Johnnie had managed their
investments; she called him Nephew
and he called her Aunt. He saw to all
the terrible mundanities of death: the
will, the disposition of property. The
legal process only exacerbated her grief.
As capable as Johnnie was, he could not
spare her indignity, and he and
Charles had to accompany her to probate
court and act as witnesses when
she took — too late — the name Lewes,
not as George's wife, but as
inheritor of his estate.
Throughout the spring and summer
Johnnie visited almost daily.
They spoke of the dead and noted the
first crocuses, the blooming shrubs,
the leaves on the elms unfurling pale
and translucent. In the early dusk of a
late September day she opened her piano
for the first time in almost a year.
The lid creaked. She ran through one
scale, then another, but stopped when
she spied Johnnie leaning against the
parlor door. "I thought you had gone,"
she said.
"I heard you and came back."
"You don't want to listen; I'm out of
"You will remember. Sing something,
Aunt. Sing me a song. It's
been a long time since I've heard you
She shook her head. "I'll sound like an
old screeching owl."
"I remember a nightingale. Please."
She found a volume of songs in a stack
beside the piano, and
when she placed it on the music rack and
began turning pages, it opened by
itself to "Wanderers Nachtlied."
"Goethe. You know how George loved
"I must read the biography — I wish I
had time to read more."
"Never mind, dear boy. You are active,
not contemplative. But
listen. Schubert's setting is the one
George preferred, though Liszt played
his version for us when we knew him in
Weimar. Schubert's is simpler. I like
it better, too."
"Should I light a lamp?" Johnnie asked.
"No, no. I want the darkness."
She played. The low opening chords
shimmered from major to
minor and back, and she sounded out the
first measure or two of melody.
Then she sat, head bowed, hands resting
on the keys. She began the
introduction once again, and her alto
floated in the dim room, soft,
disembodied, distant: "Über allen
Gipfeln ist Ruh . . ."
The last chords whispered, an altered
echo of the vocal line.
"What do the words mean?" Johnnie asked.
" 'Peace is over all the peaks, in all
the treetops you barely feel
the wind's breath. The little birds stay
silent in the forest. Only wait, soon
you, too, will rest.' Listen to how
Schubert repeats — 'wait, wait, only wait,'
and then that rising phrase, that held
note — balde — 'soon.' " She repeated
the song.
"It is very beautiful when you sing,"
he said softly.
"A poem about what is not. Not a breath
of wind, not a sound. It
makes death beautiful; it makes you
yearn for death."
She closed the keyboard and leaned her
forehead against her
hands. Johnnie crossed the room and
gently and deliberately placed his
palms on her shoulders. "Marian." He
whispered her name. "Marian, you will
have peace. In your life. If I can help
it, you will." His hands radiated comfort.
She stayed still so that he would not be
frightened off .

He had been wounded in his pride by that
thoughtless photographer. It must
be that he was exhausted; Venice was
their first rest in five weeks. Before
the wedding he had bought their new
house in Cheyne Walk, organized the
plans for its repairs and decoration,
seen to Marian's complicated affairs, and
all of this in addition to attending to
his own business in the City. It was too
much for him. She feared that she was
too much for him.
Had he not foreseen that some people
might mistake him for her
son? He was twenty years younger than
she was. When she had pressed
him to consider the difference in their
ages — pressed him none too hard —
he had shrugged it off , and she had
been satisfied.
She was accustomed, though hardly
inured, to irregularity. Before
she and George had eloped to Germany, he
had wondered if their connection
might better be kept secret.
"It is not in my nature — or in yours —
to hide. Would you rather
we skulked around and pretended that
there was nothing between us, would
you prefer to set me up in lodgings like
a tawdry petite amie? "
"It would not be like that, Polly."
"Yes, it would. Everybody would know,
and talk, and laugh at us."
"They laugh at me already — for
acknowledging each infant my
wife and Thornton Hunt bring into the
world. But what would I do instead? The
situation of their parents is not their
fault, poor little souls." Angry sadness
had spread across his face, a stain on
his naturally sweet expression.
Marian had rushed to reassure him. "No,
no — I don't blame
you — I admire you — I love you for it —
I argued with Spencer about it."
"Yes, he told me."
"He did — and what else did he say?"
She could not hide her
But George shrugged. "Nothing — just
that you understand me.
This was last summer, after he visited
you at Broadstairs."
"That's all he said?"
"Yes. No — he might have said that you
quite liked me. Why?"
She smiled with relief; Spencer had
said nothing about what had
passed between them. Men talked, but
perhaps not Spencer. "For no reason.
Gossip — how things change in the
telling. I told him I thought you were
"That's not how people usually describe
"Then they don't know you. You have
been kind to your wife —
and kind to your friend."
"His father helped me — without his
interest my life would have
gone nowhere. The least I could do is
help his children. But because I have
done so, we cannot marry."
"We cannot live apart," she said. "And
I will not hide."
She had called herself by his name —
Marian Evans Lewes —
and she had called George her husband,
and the world — her friends, at
least, all except for her brother Isaac
— came, finally, to honor their union.
Yet her marriage to Johnnie had caused
as much talk as had her
elopement with George. If she had
married an eminent physician, a widower
close to her own age, or if she had
married Herbert Spencer — and the idea
made her smile, with the small twinge of
affection and antagonism that still
accompanied any thought of him — people
would have smirked and
said, "Two dried-up old husks. They
deserve each other." All her life she had
been the subject of speculation. It was
as if gossip reflected her own
discomfort, as if she prowled the
perimeter of society's safe pasture and was
noticed and judged.
This marriage would — it must —
succeed. Beginnings were
difficult. But she and Johnnie could not
live isolated in the country or locked
behind the doors of their house in
Cheyne Walk. They would have to begin;
Mr. and Mrs. Bunney were expecting them
tomorrow. They would have to
venture into the world. It would require
will, courage, effort; she had
experience of that. Better to act, and
then confront the world with the
irrevocable. The world would give way.
None of her friends had known of her
intention to marry; she and
Johnnie had told only Johnnie's sisters
and Charles, George's eldest son.
She instructed the family solicitor to
inform her brother Isaac; she wrote to
her friends telling them her momentous news:

By the time you receive this I shall
have been married to Mr. J. W. Cross,
who you know is a friend of years, a
friend much loved and trusted by Mr.
Lewes, and who now that I am alone sees
his happiness in the dedication of
his life to me. This change in my
position will make no change in the
disposition of my property. Mr. Cross
has a sufficient fortune of his own.

She touched the brooch. The golden
snake was cool and the
minute scales delicately rough under her
finger. Was this compensation? A
flash of annoyance replaced distress.
No. Johnnie had examined the jewel
with a connoisseur's pleasure, with
loving attention; he had wanted that. But
how did he love her? He had caressed her
when he pinned the brooch to her
collar. What did that mean? She did not
know; she was waiting; she did not
know what else to do.
A maid appeared with tea, which she
placed on the desk. Marian
dropped the case holding her cameo into
her pocketbook, and with her cup
stood at the window. The photographer
was posing a family — they looked to
be American — before the doors of San
Marco. The two children were
laughing at the pigeons perched on their
heads, and it seemed that their
mother was scolding them because
presently their expressions became
grave. It would be difficult to remain
serious beneath a pigeon.
Then, in front of Florian's, she saw
the man who had been staring
at her when the photographer made his
unfortunate pronouncement; she
remembered the electric white streak of
hair at his forehead. Now on his arm
he had a striking, tall young woman with
fine features and lustrous red hair.
The man's shirt seemed ready to fly
loose from his trousers.
The girl clung to him — Marian
recognized in that gesture her own
determined intimacy with George in
Weimar — as they started across the
crowded square. Abruptly they stopped.
Marian thought she saw the man
smile. He led his companion back toward
the galleria. For a moment Marian
lost them, but she spotted them in the
shadow of the arches. Here the man
stopped again, as if he were looking for
something, searching the ground.
Then he pointed and the woman stared.
The man inscribed an arc
on the marble with the toe of his boot.
Marian was appalled — and delighted.
So he had been eavesdropping, intruding!
It was outrageous, insufferable,
rude beyond imagining — and wonderful.
She nearly laughed out loud. She
must tell Johnnie — no, he would not
find it amusing. The man fished in the
pocket of his coat and dropped to his
knees, and with a stick of charcoal
seemed to be tracing on the marble the
spiral shell of the ancient stone snail.

After a quarter of an hour Giuseppe de
Levis ushered Johnnie into the little
chamber. Johnnie was smiling; he moved
with new spirit, and Marian was
reminded of the way he used to stride
into the Priory. Radiating enthusiasm
and good cheer, he would report on the
success of investments, comparing
manufacturing concerns with
transportation companies, reciting
of return over time with the
concentration of a scientist describing
the order of
the natural world or a scholar
unraveling the twisted threads of
evidence. Johnnie had introduced her and
George to the realm of abstract
finance, and his enthusiasm had
energized them both. Marian's own
experience lay in a bygone economy, in
the yield of the land, the
straightforward ledgers of agriculture.
Johnnie had brought the future with him,
the heady arcana of exchanges, where it
was possible to profit from
American railroads or Australian mines.
She had loved his competence. Now
she saw again in his face evidence of
that assurance. Negotiations must
have gone well, but she was sure he
would not tell. In this new economy
wives and numbers did not mix, and now
she was a wife.
"Signora Cross, I am sorry that we have
kept you waiting," said de
Levis. His voice was subdued.
"But I am happy. Tea, San Marco,"
Marian responded. "Who could
want more?" She touched the brooch. "And
I do have more — I have this
beautiful jewel."
"It is beautiful, one of the best I
have ever made." De Levis inclined
his head. "Now that it is no longer
mine, I hope you will forgive me for saying
so." He paused, but before Marian could
answer, he continued. "There is a
favor I would ask of you."
Johnnie lost some buoyancy. But Marian
liked Signor de Levis.
She had enjoyed his speculation about
the character of Cicero's wife, though
Johnnie had minded, a little. He should
not; he knew she had not married him
for his learning. De Levis also loved
his métier, not only the inherent luxury of
the materials, but their potential for
transformation. Gold into a snake, an
emerald into a glowing fruit. Marian
said, "I will grant it — if I can."
"I assure you, it will be easy." He
glanced at the door. The
request, it seemed, would arrive
imminently, and she was content to
linger in
the jeweler's exquisite little chamber.
Johnnie cleared his throat. "Marian, we
must be going, don't you
think? We will be late."
"Late for what, my dear? Everything is
closing, the churches, the
galleries, even your chandelier shop; it
is almost one. We have nowhere to
go." She had meant to placate him, but
her words had the opposite effect.
She had failed to understand that he was
in a hurry to savor his victory.
Rebuked, he stood at the window looking
out, feet apart, his hands tightly
clasped behind him.
There was a quick knock. "Permesso? "
The jeweler's son,
flushed from running, handed his father
a book. It was her Daniel Deronda,
the first edition, in English. "Signora,
would you be so kind as to inscribe this
She blushed with the old satisfaction
of seeing her work
appreciated. At the same time she felt a
new, disturbing distance from the
book. Since George's death the idea of
writing had filled her with lassitude
and dismay. "Why, of course I will." She
opened the scuff ed front cover,
loosely hinged from having been read and
reread. "To Signor de Levis? I'm so
sorry, but I have forgotten your given
"Not for me, for my son, Daniele,
Daniele de Levis. He has read
the book, and it has given him a gift.
You have shown him a modern
Maccabee. The dream of a homeland." De
Levis lowered his voice. "You have
also given him another way of
understanding himself — you, a stranger,
nobility in a Jew. You must know how one
begins to believe untruths if one
hears them often enough."
"Indeed, signore, I know that. And I
know that it is seductive to
attribute sins and shortcomings to those
who are unfamiliar to us. Now,
Master Daniele" — she addressed the
jeweler's son — "what shall I say?"
She took up a pen from the writing desk,
and without waiting for a reply, she
began to write. "There," she said,
giving the book to the boy.
"What has the signora written?" asked
his father. Daniele looked
doubtfully at the jeweler. "Go on, read
it. You speak English. Don't be shy!"
The boy's gaze, bashful and proud,
flickered in Marian's direction.
He took a breath. "It says: 'To a real
Daniel, who can grow up to become a
hero to his people. Mary Ann Cross —
George Eliot.' Grazie, signora, molte
"Quite appropriate, my dear." Johnnie
smiled. "I do think, though,
that we must take our leave."
"May I offer you my gondola?" asked
Giuseppe de Levis.
"That won't be necessary," Johnnie
answered. "We've engaged
one beginning tomorrow."
"For this afternoon."
"We're staying close by. We have no need."
"Of course." The jeweler smiled at
Johnnie, but he addressed
Marian. "You might perhaps enjoy a short
giro, an excursion. My gondolier
knows the most beautiful places in
Venice, secret places, gardens, little
campi that are not described in your
guidebook." He indicated the Baedeker
that Johnnie carried. "It might be,
signora, something that would give you
"We are going to the Lido." Johnnie
addressed his wife.
"We will still have our afternoon at
the Lido." Marian turned to de
Levis. "Yes," she said, "it would give
me pleasure. But we are already in your
debt." She touched the brooch with the
tips of her fingers. "I am not speaking
of debt, signora, but of goodwill."

Marian leaned back against the gondola's
cushions with Johnnie beside her.
The boat was splendid, its gleaming
black lacquer ornamented with carved
and gilded arabesques, its pillows
covered in cut velvet. She ran her hand
over the fabric's silky nap and smiled
as the gondolier propelled them along a
narrow canal. "It's as if we've settled
into Cleopatra's barge."
"Well, I'll say that it certainly is
more than a little — oriental,"
Johnnie answered.
"Johnnie, what are you saying?"
He looked at her innocently, deflecting
her indignation.
Her voice wavered. "I have upset you."
"It's not you." He turned so that he
leaned on his side beside her.
His eyes shone, his cheeks were flushed,
he appeared fierce and
protective. "It's that I see what you
have to endure — you, the public you —
with the most, the most — unlikely
people. I wanted to sweep you out of
there, but I felt I could not, without
your permission. Yet you seemed
perfectly oblivious to the fact that
they were forcing themselves on you; you
seemed even happy."
"I seemed so because I was." She spoke
coolly. "And, tell me,
what was unlikely about those people?
Was it that they were Jews?"
Johnnie winced. "It was that they took
advantage of a commercial
transaction and exploited your goodwill,
your generosity —"
"I did not know that you felt this
way." She hesitated. "About
"I was talking about de Levis," he
countered. "Not about Jews."
She had not heard this warning in his
voice before. "Johnnie, they
were exploiting nothing." She kept her
eyes on the brackish canal, the ripples
in the water fracturing sunlight. "All I
did was write my name in a book for a
boy. Signor de Levis out of gratitude
has lent us his gondola, has given us
this jewel —"
"Not given."
"I am guessing that you made out very
Johnnie nodded, acknowledging his
success. "That emerald is
very fine."
"It would not be so beautiful without
the mounting, which is of his
own design, a reconstruction of a
Renaissance ornament. I'm sure he never
thought to sell it, certainly not to
anybody who happened into his shop. You
changed his mind."
"That was your doing."
She heard a trace of resentment. She
smiled at her husband to
appease him and touched the knot of
muscle at the angle of his jaw; she felt
him stifle an impulse to flinch. "What
is it, really, Johnnie? Are you unhappy
about sharing me? Is that the truth?"
He shook his head, relenting. "Oh, my
dear, that must be what it
is. I have had you to myself all these
months. If we were not married" — and
he smiled at her, his guileless, boyish
grin — "if we were not married, we
would be spending our time alone with
each other. I was not prepared for how
public marriage is." He took her hand,
which she had rested on his knee, and
pressed it into the cushion. "We were so
happy," he said softly.
The boat drifted through the maze of
canals. As they passed fine
palaces, the gondolier murmured their
names; a reticent guide, modulating
his voice to the heat of the day. They
glimpsed courtyards through gateways,
and their boatman slowed so that they
could see bright orange and red
nasturtiums cascading from a balcony and
a child playing below them, a cat
stretched in the sun on the hot stones
at the curb of the canal. A girl, her
dark hair loose and her feet propped on
a footstool, bent over lace bobbins,
but her hands were idle. Who lived in
those palaces? Who was that child —
was he the illegitimate son of an
American manufacturer of railroad cars?
And the girl? Marian felt neglected
filaments of imagination aligning into
"That girl making lace seemed
distracted," she mused. "I wonder
why — does she wish she were somewhere
else? Has she been deserted by
her lover? Our gondolier? He is
handsome, don't you think?"
"I can't see him."
She glanced behind her and saw the
gondolier's gaze flicker away
from Johnnie toward her. She smiled, and
the gondolier lowered his eyes. "It
happens all the time, you know — the
gondoliers amuse themselves with
Americans and Englishwomen. Tell me,
Johnnie, what do you think?"
"I haven't looked."
"I meant the girl. What do you think
about the girl making lace?"
He sighed. "I didn't even notice her.
Speculations are your
province. I wouldn't have the slightest
idea — if I'd seen her I would have
thought she had indigestion." He
shrugged. "Where do you think we are?" he
"I don't know, but it doesn't much
"As long as I am with you," he murmured
"Did you sleep well last night? Was
your bed comfortable?"
"It was hard," he said.
"You should ask for a softer mattress."
He closed his eyes and Marian watched
him, his beautiful face
finally in repose.
People had described George as ugly; in
that regard he and
Marian were considered well matched. He
was wiry and nervous, slight of
build, his complexion scarred from
smallpox; his light brown hair coiled in
curls. A mimic, he would have caught the
heavy shuffle of the photographer
with his pockets full of bread crumbs.
The man with the lightning bolt in his
hair would have intrigued him. George
would have noticed him far earlier than
she had; he would have managed to find
out who he was. Everything amused
George. He undressed her seriousness —
he had said that to her once. Only
in private, however; in company they
were reserved and decorous, exemplars
of respectability. Unmarried, they had
achieved an ideal of marriage.
She had been thirty-five when they met
and despairing of love.
She could not imagine the circumstances
under which she and George would
have found themselves at that expensive
jeweler's. A pity — he would have
liked Signor de Levis; probably he would
have asked to visit the workshop.
They would have ended by meeting the
family, opening a drab door into
enclosed opulence, encountering learned
daughters. Enough. George had
thought the world of Johnnie, had
delighted in his combination of social
reserve — innocence, almost — and
financial sophistication.
Johnnie's olive skin had a dense,
resilient texture, but it had
grown sallow during the last frenetic
month. He was beginning to show the
first small signs of age: rays of
wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, the
crease of a smile after the smile had
relaxed. She loved those marks; they
brought him closer to her and made her
less shy of his physical perfection.
And marriage, indeed, was public. It had
been a complicated progression,
from friendship to courtship to
marriage. They were moving cautiously.
The canals were quiet, the little
streets and squares almost
deserted; the gondolier rowed
languorously, rocking them into reverie.
In the
silence of midday, he began speaking:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

"Johnnie!" Marian whispered. "Listen —"
"What is it?"
"Dante. The first lines. Where we began —"
"Yes, I read somewhere that they do
that, the gondoliers. They
say it's quite romantic." He turned his
head to face her and rested his cheek
on the soft velvet. His eyelashes were
as long and thick as a boy's. He
smiled. "And it is, don't you think,
like music, a little?" He opened his eyes
and tilted his head back. The gondolier
was watching and smiled, stretching
his lips tight across his large white
teeth. Johnnie looked away abruptly, as if
he had seen something disconcerting.
Marian listened to the gondolier chant
the poetry in his sibilant
Venetian dialect. His speech cut through
the lapping waves, and she
imagined she could hear George's voice
mimicking the guttural sounds. He
would have teased her over her rapture.
George was too much in her thoughts
this afternoon.
In the narrow canal, sunshine laid a
mesh of silvery glaze on the
water, and, like a trick of theatrical
lighting, it gleamed on the white marble
arc of a bridge while the pavement on
either side remained shadowed. The
bridge crossed the canal in a pyramid of
broad, shallow steps; the Hapsburg
functionaries had somehow overlooked
this one when they ordered the
installation of railings.
A man stood beside the bottom step at
the edge of the
embankment, peering into the canal; he
could have been searching for an
aquatic creature, a sea worm or snail, a
species that would thrive in the fetid
water. Marian could barely make him out,
but she could see enough — his
slight frame, his fly-away curly hair,
his deep concentration. "Oh!" She
choked and half rose. The gondolier
shouted as he balanced the rocking
boat, and Johnnie reached for her arm
and pulled her back onto the cushions.
"Marian! What is it? What have you seen?"
"Va tutto bene? " the gondolier called.
"Si, si, mi scusi! " Marian managed to
apologize. She lay back in
the boat, her eyes squeezed shut.
As the gondolier slowed the boat,
Johnnie bent over her. He
stroked her hand. "Marian. What
happened? Tell me — tell me! Do you want
to stop? Is the boat making you sick?"
"No, no. Nothing like that. Tell him,
Johnnie, tell him, please, to go
on." She opened her eyes and stared at
the man at the bridge. He was, she
saw, fifteen years younger than George
would have been, an ordinary seedy
little man idly observing a piece of
floating rubbish — which was, she now
realized, the bloated carcass of a rat.
She shuddered and cried out again.
The man looked up and laughed.
"Marian! What did you see? You must
tell me," Johnnie
"The rat," she whispered. "Horrible!"
"Close your eyes, then, don't look;
we'll soon be past it."
She shook her head. "It's only a rat.
I've seen dead rats before."
"You thought you saw George, didn't
you?" Johnnie gazed at her,
his eyes bright with sympathy. "From a
distance that man looked like him. Of
course the resemblance didn't hold up.
What a nasty grin."
"Resemblance?" She refused to concur;
she was terrified. She
would not acknowledge what she had seen
— no, not seen. If she had seen
him, her mind was tricking her into
seeing not the world as it was, but the
world according to her desire. A trick
of light, an illusion, a deception: that
was understandable. But the specificity
of the illusion dismayed her. It wore
his coat — she would have recognized the
feel of the wool under her fingers.
And it cast a shadow; its familiar,
angular shape made her frantic with
longing and with fear for the solidity
of her own mind.
Johnnie, with a dreadful instinct for
kindness, said, "Love doesn't
die with death."
"That is simply pain."
"But death is a mystery."
"In life there are mysteries enough."
He had meant to comfort her;
she had to appear to be comforted. She
nodded. Johnnie had not laughed at
her revelation of snails; she should,
she supposed, remain open-minded on
the question of spirits. Evidence had
limitations, even this evidence of her
mental instability. Certainly the leap
of faith was real enough, if its landing
place was not; her impulse to deny death
had been an aberration, a mystery.
For a quarter of an hour, they sat in
silence. They had floated into
the center of Venice, the innermost
chambers of its nautilus; buildings five
and six stories high crowded together
and blocked the sun from the narrow
"We must be in the ghetto," she said
and tried for levity. "I wonder
where our Charon is taking us. Past what
other ghosts?" "It's certainly dark
as hell in here," Johnnie answered. "And
not very interesting."
The gondolier swung the boat around a
sharp corner into a little
rio, its narrow passage opening into
glittering sunlight; they had arrived at
Grand Canal. "Oh!" she exclaimed. "How
Her husband smiled, once again in a
place he recognized.
Desiring peace, she reached for his
hand. "Oh, Johnnie, forgive
me," she said.
"There's nothing to forgive." She saw
from his satisfied smile that
he believed she had offered a
confession. He lifted her hand and
softly kissed
her fingers with his dry lips.

Short, rapid, dark waves slapped at the
Lido beach, their movement
unfettered and violent after the
contained calm of the lagoon. Marian and
Johnnie sat on the terrace of the hotel
where they had dined; the sea breeze
teased her bonnet.
"Do you think it's the afternoon
light," Marian asked, "that darkens
the sea? Or is it something in the water
itself ?"
Johnnie laughed. "I have absolutely no
idea. Are you cold? Is the
wind giving you a chill?"
"Oh, no. I love the wind. But I would
like to move into the sun."
"I'll fix your chair."
She rose and took a step toward the
edge of the terrace. "Perhaps
we should go on to Greece. I've never
been there."
"It will be far too hot for you, my dear."
"Yes. Odysseus sailed from Ithaca, at
the southern tip of the
Adriatic. So this is the northern edge
of his wine-dark sea. There must be
something in the water, the minerals
that have leached into it."
Johnnie, angling the chair into the
sun, did not answer; he must
not have heard her over the scraping of
its legs. No matter.
"You know, I think I'd like to swim,"
he said, settling her in.
She shivered. "The water's too cold;
it's too early in the season.
You'll catch a chill."
"But the air is warm. A swim might be
just what I need."
"There's nobody in the water."
He laughed. "I'll go and test the
temperature. Would you like to
come with me — or have I made you too
She sighed. "I am quite happy here. And
my finery" — she
touched the brooch — "is not quite the
thing for a stroll on the beach. Go."
She patted her little pocketbook. "I
have my books and my letters. But
Johnnie — don't swim. I don't want to
lose you."
He took her hand and kissed it and
started off toward the sand.
She watched him, his long stride, his
easy posture, the back of his neck pale
and tender below his close-cropped dark
hair; he had grown so slender that
from behind he could have passed for a
boy. She had not seen him from such
a distance for several weeks. She
sighed. Mrs. John Walter Cross. The sun
was making her drowsy. She reached into
her bag and pulled out a little
book, another gift from Johnnie. The day
before their wedding he had
presented it to her, its blank pages
elegantly bound in a leather spine and its
boards covered with marbled paper. On
the spine were printed in gold her
new initials: mac. "For your notes," he
had said, "your notes for your next
She had laughed lightly and
dismissively and thanked him; how
could he know that she made her notes in
plain cardboard books? A beautiful
thing like this was too precious for raw
thought. And how could he assume
that there would be a next book? She
closed her eyes. Blank, dead calm.
This growing sense of detachment and
numbness: was this a different kind of
Or was imagination turning traitor?
When she thought — when
she sifted through the intricacies of a
story or laced together the strands of
an idea — there was a buzzing at the
base of her skull, a rushing energy, a
flood of information and sensation. It
was also a kind of precariousness,
fraught with doubt and anxiety, a
terrifying feat, like crossing a narrow
over a gorge. I cannot, she had
believed. "Try," George had said when she
told him she wanted to write a story.
"You will know if you have something."
"You will tell me, too?"
"Of course I will."
"The truth?"
She could not have written alone —
could never have fashioned
her characters, never decided their
fates, never risked publishing her
stories — without George. If she could
not legally bear his last name, on the
title page of her books she was George.
He cherished — as if it were a child —
her ambition. Ambition:
she did not like the word; it was
inadequate. That necessity, that passionate
curiosity, that hunger for love and
knowledge, that ambition had cost her
dearly. It had lured her from her
childhood faith, from her father's God;
it had
driven her from home. But her
imagination still lived in her childhood
countryside, the slow rivers and slower
customs, the flowering meadows and
the encroaching mills, the implacable
steeples and gentle hills. Its
boundaries, the stubborn and
heartbreaking integrity of her father
and brother,
boundaries she had long ago
transgressed, still defined her mental
landscape. She had written of them with
an exile's yearning.
The waves, splashing and sucking,
crashing in relentless and
undifferentiated noise, agitated her.
She thought to get up and follow Johnnie
along the beach, but she felt heavy and
lethargic, bound, inert. Opening the
little book, she took out a letter she
had stowed inside the front cover. It had
been written promptly, as she had
imagined it would be, and she had
received it in Milan. She unfolded it
and reread it:

I have much pleasure in availing myself
of the present opportunity to break
the long silence which has existed
between us, by offering our united and
sincere congratulations to you and Mr. Cross
. . . Believe me

Your affectionate brother,
Isaac P. Evans

Long silence: more than twenty years.
Between us: it had been all
his doing. But she had as much as dared
him to renounce her. She could go
home now — if she wished. How much time
had been lost and how much
affection — time and love beyond
recovery. Isaac was a grandfather now; did
his grandsons resemble him; did they
linger outside until it was too dark to
see; were they graceful and lanky; did
their little sisters adore them and
follow them everywhere, as she had
followed Isaac? Isaac would speak to her
now that she was Mrs. John W. Cross —
now that, finally, she had achieved
her proper happy ending.
She took a pencil from her case. She
would describe the scene:
the terrace, the beach, the afternoon
shadows darkening the golden sand,
the figure of her husband at the edge of
the sea. Where would that lead? She
would mark up this book. She wrote her
name. Mrs. John W. Cross. Mary
Ann Cross. The waves, the sky, the
shadows, her husband — words, facts,
sufficient unto themselves. She filled a
page with Mrs. John W. Cross, Mary
Ann Cross. Mary Ann: the name she was
baptized with. The letters of her
name, capitals and lowercase, curled and
rose and fell in graphite waves
across the page.

Chapter 2
Venice, June 10, 1980
I am happy. If you say you are, it's
true — an act of will. I am happy. Caroline
Spingold walked the streets of Venice,
walking out anger. She shouldn't be
angry; she had no right. Even the paving
stones, small blocks of basalt, a
dark mosaic underfoot, recalled a time
when she had been glad. I am happy.
The words marched through her mind.
It was the other way around; she was
marching to the words. I am
happy. Trochees. She stepped to
trochees, to poetic feet. And suddenly a
memory of happiness, vivid and physical,
assailed her. It was solid and
shining, a beautiful thing she had once
possessed. Though she wanted it
desperately, she could not pick it up
and carry it across time into the