'Tell you what,' said John, 'if we go down here by the Arsenal, and cross that bridge at the end and head left, we'll come upon San Zaccaria from the other side. We did it the other morning.'
'Yes, but it was daylight then. We may lose our way, it's not very well lit.'
'Don't fuss. I have an instinct for these things.'
They turned down the Fondamenta dell'Arsenale and crossed the little bridge short of the Arsenal itself, and so on past the church of San Martino. There were two canals ahead, one bearing right, the other left, with narrow streets beside them. John hesitated. Which one was it they had walked beside the day before?
'You see,' protested Laura, 'we shall be lost, just as I said.' 'Nonsense,' replied John firmly. 'It's the left-hand one, I remember the little bridge.'
The canal was narrow, the houses on either side seemed to close in upon it, and in the daytime, with the sun's reflection on the water and the windows of the houses open, bedding upon the balconies, a canary singing in a cage, there had been an impression of warmth, of secluded shelter. Now, almost in darkness, the windows of the houses shuttered, the water dank, the scene appeared altogether different, neglected, poor, and the long narrow boats moored to the slippery steps of cellar entrances looked like coffins.
'I swear I don't remember this bridge,' said Laura, pausing, and holding on to the rail, 'and I don't like the look of that alleyway beyond.'
'There's a lamp halfway up,' John told her. 'I know exactly where we are, not far from the Greek quarter.'
They crossed the bridge, and were about to plunge into the alley-way when they heard the cry. It came, surely, from one of the houses on the opposite side, but which one it was impossible to say. With the shutters closed each one of them seemed dead. They turned, and stared in the direction from which the sound had come.
'What was it?' whispered Laura.
'Some drunk or other,' said John briefly. 'Come on.'
Less like a drunk than someone being strangled, and the choking cry suppressed as the grip held firm.
'We ought to call the police,' said Laura.
'Oh, for heaven's sake,' said John. Where did she think she was-Piccadilly?
'Well, I'm off, it's sinister,' she replied, and began to hurry away up the twisting alley-way. John hesitated, his eye caught by a small figure which suddenly crept from a cellar entrance below one of the opposite houses, and then jumped into a narrow boat below. It was a child, a little girl she couldn't have been more than five or six-wearing a short coat over her minute skirt, a pixie hood covering her head. There were four boats moored, line upon line, and she proceeded to jump from one to the other with surprising agility, intent, it would seem, upon escape. Once her foot slipped and he caught his breath, for she was within a few feet of the water, losing balance; then she recovered, and hopped on to the furthest boat. Bending, she tugged at the rope, which had the effect of swinging the boat's after-end across the canal, almost touching the opposite side and another cellar entrance, about thirty feet from the spot where John stood watching her. Then the child jumped again, landing upon the cellar steps, and vanished into the house, the boat swinging back into mid-canal behind her. The whole episode could not have taken more than four minutes. Then he heard the quick patter of feet. Laura had returned. She had seen none of it, for which he felt unspeakably thankful. The sight of a child, a little girl, in what must have been near danger, her fear that the scene he had just witnessed was in some way a sequel to the alarming cry, might have had a disastrous effect on her overwrought nerves.
'What are you doing?' she called. 'I daren't go on without you. The wretched alley branches in two directions.'
'Sorry,' he told her. 'I'm coming.'
He took her arm and they walked briskly along the alley, John with an apparent confidence he did not possess.
'There were no more cries, were there?' she asked.
'No,' he said, 'no, nothing. I tell you, it was some drunk.'
The alley led to a deserted campo behind a church, not a church he knew, and he led the way across, along another street and over a further bridge.
'Wait a minute,' he said. 'I think we take this right-hand turning. It will lead us into the Greek quarter-the church of San Georgio is somewhere over there.'
She did not answer. She was beginning to lose faith. The place was like a maze. They might circle round and round forever, and then find themselves back again, near the bridge where they had heard the cry. Doggedly he led her on, and then surprisingly, with relief, he saw people walking in the lighted street ahead, there was a spire of a church, the surroundings became familiar.
'There, I told you,' he said. 'That's San Zaccaria, we've found it all right. Your restaurant can't be far away.'
And anyway, there would be other restaurants, somewhere to eat, at least here was the cheering glitter of lights, of movement, canals beside which people walked, the atmosphere of tourism. The letters Ristorante', in blue lights, shone like a beacon down a left-hand alley.
'Is this your place?' he asked.
'God knows,' she said. 'Who cares? Let's feed there anyway.'
And so into the sudden blast of heated air and hum of voices, the smell of pasta, wine, waiters, jostling customers, laughter. For two? This way, please.' Why, he thought, was one's British nationality always so obvious? A cramped little table and an enormous menu scribbled in an indecipherable mauve biro, with the waiter hovering, expecting the order forthwith.
'Two very large camparis, with soda,' John said. 'Then we'll study the menu.'
He was not going to be rushed. He handed the bill of fare to Laura and looked about him. Mostly Italians-that meant the food would be good. Then he saw them. At the opposite side of the room. The twin sisters. They must have come into the restaurant hard upon Laura's and his own arrival, for they were only now sitting down, shedding their coats, the waiter hovering beside the table. John was seized with the irrational thought that this was no coincidence. The sisters had noticed them both, in the street outside, and had followed them in. Why, in the name of hell, should they have picked on this particular spot, in the whole of Venice, unless… unless Laura herself, at Torcello, had suggested a further encounter, or the sister had suggested it to her? A small restaurant near the church of San Zaccaria, we go there sometimes for dinner. It was Laura, before the walk, who had mentioned San Zaccaria….
She was still intent upon the menu, she had not seen the sisters, but any moment now she would have chosen what she wanted to eat, and then she would raise her head and look across the room. If only the drinks would come. If only the waiter would bring the drinks, it would give Laura something to do.
'You know, I was thinking,' he said quickly, 'we really ought to go to the garage tomorrow and get the car, and do that drive to Padua. We could lunch in Padua, see the cathedral and touch St Antony's tomb and look at the Giotto frescoes, and come back by way of those various villas along the Brenta that the guidebook cracks up.'
It was no use, though. She was looking up, across the restaurant, and she gave a little gasp of surprise. It was genuine. He could swear it was genuine.
'Look,' she said, 'how extraordinary! How really amazing!' 'What?' he said sharply.
'Why, there they are. My wonderful old twins. They've seen us, what's more. They're staring this way.' She waved her hand, radiant, delighted. The sister she had spoken to at Torcello bowed and smiled. False old bitch, he thought. I know they followed us.
'Oh, darling, I must go and speak to them,' she said impulsively, 'just to tell them how happy I've been all day, thanks to them.'