Ascension: New Excerpt

Ascension by Gregory Dowling is an historical mystery set in the Venetian past (Available September 13, 2016).

When a young tour guide, Alvise Marangon, offers to help an English Grand Tourist, little does he know that it will lead to his being embroiled in blackmail and conspiracy. To add to his woes, he is then forcibly recruited into the city's powerful secret service to investigate a murder case. A reluctant spy he may be, but he is a gifted one.

Amidst the world of gambling dens and courtesans, something momentous is being planned for the Feast of the Ascension, Venice's most important and spectacular holiday, and it seems that only Alvise can prevent the day turning into bloody mayhem.


I should not have interfered. I would have avoided a good deal of trouble if I had listened to that faint inner voice of prudence – or if I had listened to Bepi, a not so faint outer voice.

“Leave them alone,” he said in his terse Venetian.

“Why should we?” I said.

“They’ll have their reasons.”

“Yes, but what sort of reasons?”

“That’s their business.”

All good sense. Bepi is a practical man, as gondoliers have to be. And why should he quarrel with a scudo for doing nothing, when the whole afternoon’s work would have earned him at best half as much? That was what this ganzer, whom he had never seen before, had given him, as a reward for not offering his services to the new English arrivals here on the edge of the lagoon. I had not been given anything myself, so self-interest might have played a part in my urge to interfere.

There is always a good deal of bustle around the landing stage at Fusina around mid-afternoon, which is when most of the carriages arrive bringing the foreign visitors from Padua. Many of them take the slow barge down the Brenta Canal, which takes them all the way into Venice, but some want to put off to the very last the moment when they commit themselves to water. And for these passengers that moment occurs here, at the landing stage of Fusina.

So in the hours before sunset the gondoliers, ganzeri – literally, the “hookmen” who pull the gondolas ashore – and guides cluster around, offering their services, mostly in a few practised phrases of Venetian-accented French. My fluent English is naturally a great asset when the milords arrive, and by now the gondoliers accept my right of precedence with these passengers. And they all know that Bepi and I are a team, so they let him move forward as well, together with Bepi’s brother, Tonin, who takes care of the baggage.

But this time we had been pre-empted by a ganzer new to us: a wiry-looking man, with grey hair pulled back into a pigtail, who had leapt off a gondola rowed by two men dressed in black. Bepi did not know them, which is fairly unusual, especially since they were both wearing the red caps of Castello, just like Bepi himself.

As soon as the hired carriage bringing two English gentlemen and a servant arrived, this ganzer had darted forward, cutting in front of Bepi. “These are for us,” he had said.

Of course, it often happens that private gondoliers are sent to Fusina to pick up specific passengers, but the two gentlemen had given no signs of expecting a pre-arranged escort – and then the ganzer had made it perfectly clear that this was not the case by pressing a coin into Bepi’s hand and saying, “Leave them to us.”

Bepi, after a glance at the coin, had shrugged and strolled back towards me. At which point I had expressed my perplexities.

“Yes, but what sort of business can it be?” I said, to myself as much as to Bepi. I looked at the two Englishmen. The types were clear enough: a young English nobleman on his Grand Tour and his “bear-leader” or tutor. The young man looked amiable enough: he was gazing around at the scene with frank interest. Presumably all very different from the decorous orderliness of his home, where his mother would have bidden him farewell with a stately bow of the head and his father with a manly handshake. Here at Fusina a family of Venetians were exchanging raucous shouts, hand-slaps, kisses and lively embraces with relatives who had crossed the lagoon to meet them. Gondoliers and servants in bright liveries were transferring parcels and trunks to waiting boats and yelling at one another for no apparent reason, and across the lagoon the towers and domes of Venice shimmered in the golden haze of early spring sunlight. The scene appeared to fluster the tutor; he was in his late thirties, with a slightly lopsided wig, and an expression of anxiety on his round face that might have been habitual but now looked especially acute. Their servant hung back, a squat young man with an expression of frank suspicion on his face, as the ganzer took charge of their luggage. Only the young aristocrat appeared to have noticed the view across the lagoon, and was clearly appreciating it.

I made up my mind and moved forward. “Excuse me, sir,” I said in English, doffing my tricorn hat. I heard Bepi give a resigned groan behind me.

The young man swung round towards me. “Oh, hello,” he said. His voice was as amiable as his expression.

“I hope you won’t mind my addressing you like this. I thought I had best tell you about the man who’s transferring your baggage to his boat.”

The ganzer had stopped to listen. He did not understand a word but his expression was suddenly suspicious.

“Oh yes? What about him?” asked the young man.

“It is just that he seemed exceptionally keen to take charge of you and your belongings. He actually paid my gondolier to hold back from offering his own services.”

“Really? Is that usual?”

“Not at all, sir.”

The ganzer came forward and addressed me aggressively in Venetian. “What are you pushing in here for? What are you saying to him?”

“I’m just letting him know about your odd transaction with Bepi here. I thought he ought to be warned.”

“Your Bepi seemed happy enough to take the money. Now get out of it.” And he gave a nod to one of the gondoliers, who came towards me. He was a hefty man, with a pockmarked face like the kernel of a walnut, and I began to think Bepi probably had a point. Still, it would look feeble to back down right away.

“I just thought the gentleman ought to know so that he can make an informed choice.” I hoped my voice sounded more confident than I felt.

The ganzer gave another nod to his gondolier and suddenly my shoulder was gripped by something that felt like a vice.

“Tell your man to get his hands off me,” I said.

“I say,” said the Englishman, “what’s going on?”

The tutor put in a word: “Oh dear, this all seems rather uncalled for. Had we better, em…” But he clearly had no idea what to propose; this was a contingency for which his travel guides had not prepared him.

Suddenly my shoulder was released. I swivelled and saw that the walnut-faced man had been jerked away from me by Bepi. They stood facing each other; Bepi was quite a bit shorter than the other man but that did not seem to bother him. He darted a quick smile at me but then his eyes went straight back to his opponent.

“Thanks, Bepi,” I said, and rubbed my shoulder. I put my hat back on.

Without taking his eyes off the other gondolier, Bepi pulled out the coin he had been given and tossed it to the ganzer. “Here, I’ve changed my mind.”

There was another flash of metal and this time it marked the sudden appearance of a knife in the walnut-faced man’s hand. The babble of voices all around us seemed to stop for a moment, and then it was resumed with an added note of shrillness. Bepi tensed.

The ganzer spoke. “Leave it,” he said to the gondolier. For a moment or two the walnut face seemed on the point of cracking, and then the man thrust the knife away inside his jacket. He gave us a vicious scowl and turned away. The ganzer stood still for a second or two, his dark eyes fixed on us. Then, with one lithe snake-like movement, he stooped, picked up the scudo from the grass and pocketed it. “I’ll remember you,” he said to me, and followed the gondolier towards their boat.

“Thanks,” I said to Bepi again.

He shrugged. “Couldn’t just leave you, I guess.”

“I’ll make up that scudo,” I said, then added, “as soon as I can.”

He flashed another smile, laconic this time. He knew my financial situation better than I did.

“What’s going on?” said the Englishman.

“They’ve changed their minds,” I said. “We can take you to the city.”

“Then we must get our baggage back,” he said.

I looked towards the landing stage. The black-clad gondoliers had put the last trunk down and were looking towards the ganzer for further instructions. There was a moment when it seemed the ganzer was toying with the idea of loading the luggage on to their boat anyway, but then he evidently thought better of it; he gave a quick flicking gesture of summons, stepped nimbly into the gondola and they pushed off.

“That seems to have been settled,” I said to the Englishman. “Maybe we should have thanked them for taking it at least to the water’s edge.”

“Who are they?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “but they seemed very keen to have the honour of taking you into Venice. Are you expected?”

He gave a quick glance at his tutor, who still appeared flustered. “Not as far as I know,” he said.

“No, no, certainly not,” said the tutor, in quick nervous fashion. “How could we be? We have sent word to the English Resident, but we didn’t specify a date.”

There seemed little point in pursuing this issue. “Well, gentlemen, if you wish, our gondola and sandolo are at your disposal. Have you already decided on a inn?”

“We were told the Queen of Hungary is reliable,” said the young man. “But would you mind telling me who you are? You’re English, aren’t you?”

“English-Venetian,” I said. “My mother was Venetian but I grew up in England. So I speak both languages and if you wish I can offer my services as cicerone during your stay here. Bepi will be happy to provide transportation.”

The young man glanced at the tutor. I had come to realise that the rules varied regarding control of the purse strings for these tours. It really depended on the instructions that had been given to both tutor and pupil by the family; and that depended, I suppose, on the amount of trust the fond parents felt they could repose in their offspring’s behaviour during his first excursion beyond the confines of Albion.

I used a formula I had developed for these occasions. “If you wish to consider the matter I will attend to your baggage.” This allowed the young man to conceal the possibly embarrassing fact of his limited financial responsibility. He nodded with a touch of relief and I turned to Bepi.

“Let’s get the luggage on to the barge. Regina d’Ungheria.”

He nodded. He had recognised the inn’s name; he had picked up a few English words over the last few months working with me. Inn names, the principal sights of Venice, numbers – these last with reference to zecchini, and so never beyond single figures.

“Let’s hope there’s no more trouble,” he said, gesturing out to the lagoon. Our recent rivals had set off towards Venice, but at present they seemed to be lingering some twenty yards off.

“You’ve really never seen them before?” I said.

“Not the gondoliers. But the ganzer, I’ve a feeling I’ve seen him somewhere. Not on the water. There’s something about the way he moves…”

I remembered the lithe, serpentine body. “Distinctive, definitely,” I said.

“They’re leaving,” Bepi said with a note of relief. They had been joined by another gondola, which had set off from the shore a few moments earlier, and now both boats began to row towards Venice.

“Who was in that second gondola?” I asked.

“Not sure; a gondolier from San Marcuola, I think.”

“Yes,” I said thoughtfully. I turned to our customers. “Sir,” I said, “do you have any special reason to go the Queen of Hungary?”

“Only that I heard it was good. Why?”

I gestured to the lagoon. “Our friends from earlier … you saw they were waiting out in the lagoon?”


“They were waiting for someone to tell them which inn you will be staying at.”

“Oh really,” he said with a touch of disbelief.

His tutor spoke up; there was a quiver in his voice but he was clearly decided. “Sir, we cannot afford to take any risks. Let us take these people’s advice.”

“In that case, can you recommend a inn?” said the young man, turning to me.

“The White Lion is equally good,” I said. “Close to the Rialto.”

“And don’t tell me, it’s run by your brother,” he said, and gave a sudden barking laugh, which made several people around us jump.

“You can believe that if you wish,” I said levelly. “And you can decide to hold to the Queen of Hungary. It makes no difference to me. The prices of the two inns are more or less the same.”

“All right, let’s get devoured by your Lion.” Out came that bark of a laugh again. “As for your services beyond today, let’s see how things go, shall we?”

“As you wish,” I said, with a polite bow, trying not to let my frustration show. It would not help my chances for him to see just how much I needed the job.


Copyright © 2016 Gregory Dowling.

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Gregory Dowling grew up in Bristol before studying English at Christ Church, Oxford. He moved to Venice in 1981, where he is Associate Professor of American Literature at Ca' Foscari University of Venice. He has published novels, co-edited anthologies of poetry, and written various non-fiction books and academic articles on Italian, British, and American literature.

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