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I first heard of Marco da Cola, Gentleman (so-called) of Venice, in a letter from a correspondent in the Low Countries, to whom the government paid a moderate competence to observe the activities of English radicals in exile. Particularly, this fellow was requested to watch keenly for the slightest contact between them and anybody close to the Dutch government, and to note any absences or unusual visitors. This man wrote to me in the October of 1662 (more to justify his gold than for any other reason, I suspect) and said nothing at all except that a Venetian, one Cola, had arrived in Leiden and had spent some time in the exiles company.

That was all; certainly there was no reason at that time to imagine that this man was anything other than a wandering student. I gave the matter little attention beyond writing to a merchant, then traveling to Italy to acquire paintings for Englishmen with more money than sense, asking him to identify this man. I might mention in passing that picture dealers (now more common since it became legal to bring such works into the country) make excellent investigators, as they come and go as they please without causing suspicion. Their trade brings them into contact with men of influence, but they are so lowly and absurd in their pretensions to gentility and education that few ever take them seriously.

I received no reply until the beginning of 1663, my correspondents laxity and the winter posts both conspiring to cause delay. Even then, his response produced little of interest and, lest anybody think I was careless, I append here Mr. Jacksons letter:

Reverend and learned sir,

In response to your request, while in Venice to acquire works of beauty for my Lord Sunderland and others, I had leisure to put in hand those enquiries which you requested. This Cola is, it seems, the son of a merchant, who studied at the University of Padua for several years. He is near thirty years of age, of middling height and well-built. I have found out little about him for he left the Veneto so long ago several thought him dead. He is, however, reputed to be an excellent shot and fine swordsman. Reports have it that the fathers agent in London, Giovanni di Pietro, acts as observer on English affairs for the Venetian ambassador in Paris, while his elder son Andrea is a priest and confessor to Cardinal Flavio Chigi, nephew to Pope AlexanderShould you wish me to enquire further, I would be more than happy

The letter then concluded with hopeful remarks saying that if I wanted to acquire any paintings, Thomas Jackson Esquire (not that he had any right to call himself such, being a mere painter) would be most grateful for the privilege of obliging.

When I received this letter, I naturally wrote to Mr. Bennet about this man Giovanni di Pietroif the Venetians did have a correspondent in London, I felt the government should know who he was. Somewhat to my surprise, I received a curt note backThis di Pietro was already known to them, was of no danger to the government and Mr. Bennet was sure I had much more profitable areas of enquiry. He reminded me that my task was the repression of sectaries; other questions were none of my concern.

I was too occupied to be other than thankful for this as there were definite signs that the sectaries were indeed rumbling again and I had more than enough to keep me busy. Reports reached me of consignments of arms flitting about the country, of little conventicles of radicals meeting, then dispersing. Most dangerous of all, a solid report came that Edmund Ludlow, the most dangerous and able of the old generals still at liberty, had been receiving an unusually large number of visitors in his exile in Switzerland. The beast was stirring, but still it was like trying to measure the waters in the hollow of your hand (Isaiah 40:12). In several parts of the country I knew that trouble was brewingI did not know why, or who was behind it all.

It should not be thought that my activities took place only in OxfordI was, naturally, bound to be there during some of the term but much of the year I was at liberty, and spent a good part of my time in London, for not only did this give me access to the Secretary of State (Mr. Bennet received his reward that November), much of learned society was migrating there as well and I naturally wished to spend time in their company. The great venture of the Royal Society was under way, and it was vital that it was constructed along good lines, only admitting proper people and keeping out those who wished to pervert it to ungodly endspapists at one extreme, atheists at the other.

Shortly after a meeting of the Society, Matthew, my servant, though far more than that, came to me. I will dwell much on this young man in my narrative, for he was as dear to me as a son; dearer, in fact. When I consider my own sons, doltish buffoons with whom no man of sense can converse, I despair of my misfortune. A foolish son is the calamity of his father (Proverbs 19:13); how much have I meditated on the truth of this saying, for I have two such fools. I tried once to teach the elder the secrets of decipherment, but might as well have attempted to instruct a baboon in the theories of Mr. Newton. They were left to my wife when young, since I was too busy on government business and in the university to attend to them, and she brought them up in her image. She is a good woman, everything a wife should be, and brought me an estate, yet I wish I had never been constrained to marry. The services a woman provides in no manner compensate for the inadequacy of her company, and the liberties she curtails.

I have been greatly occupied at times of my life with the problems of educating the young; I have worked on the most unpromising material, persuading the dumb to speak and trying, from that, to arrive at general principles about the malleability of the infant mind. I would have young boys entirely removed from the company of women, especially that of their mothers, from about the age of six so that their minds might be occupied with lofty conversation and noble ideas. Their reading, their education and even their play should be directed by a man of senseand by that I do not mean those wretches who habitually pass themselves off as schoolteachersso that they might be excited to emulate what is great, and shun what is ignoble.

Had a boy such as Matthew come into my company but a few years earlier, then I believe I could have made a great man of him. The moment I saw him, I was struck with an inexpressible regret, for in his carriage and in his eyes I saw the son and companion I had prayed God to give me. Scarcely educated, and even less well trained, he was more a man than those children of mine who had every care expended on their puny minds, and whose ambition nonetheless extended no further than a desire to secure their own comfort. Matthew was tall and fair, and had such an expression of the most perfect compliance in his manner that he compelled the favor of all who encountered him.

I first met him when he was questioned by Thurloes office about a group thought to be too radical for the countrys peace; he was perhaps sixteen at the time. I merely attended, rather than conducted the interview (a business for which I never had much patience) and was immediately struck by the forthright honesty in his responses, which showed a maturity beyond both his station and years. He was, in fact, entirely innocent of any wrongdoing and was never suspected of such; but he was acquainted with many dangerous people, even though he did not share their opinions in any way. He was reluctant to give information about his friends and I found this innate sense of loyalty an admirable trait and thought that, could it but be redirected to more worthy ends, this ignorant child might yet be turned into a man of worth.

His interrogation was kept secret lest he lose credit with his friends, and I offered afterward to engage him as a servant at a decent wage; he was so astonished by his good fortune that he accepted with alacrity. Already he had some small learning, for he was the orphan of a printer in the city, and could read well and write with accuracy. And as I tempted him with knowledge, he responded with an enthusiasm I have never met, before or since, in any pupil.

Those who know me may find this incredible, for I know I have a reputation for impatience. I willingly admit that my tolerance for the idle, the stupid or the willfully ignorant is swiftly exhausted. But give me a real pupil, one burning with the desire to learn, who needs only a touch of sweet water to yearn for the whole river of knowledge, and my care is all but infinite. To take such a boy as Matthew, to form him and see his comprehension expand and his wisdom develop, is the richest of experiences, if also the most difficult and calling for unrelenting effort. The getting of children is the vulgar work of nature; fools can do it, peasants can do it and women can do it. Framing those moving lumps into wise and good adults is a task fit only for men and only they can properly savor the result.

Train up a child in the way he should goand when he is old, he will not depart from it(Proverbs 22:6). I had no extravagant hopes but I thought that, in time, I would establish him in some position in the government and ultimately teach him my skills in cryptography, that he might be useful and make his way to position. My hopes were more than satisfied, for however fast Matthew learned, yet I knew he could go faster. But I confess this merely excited my own desires for him still further and I often lost my temper when he misconstrued a phrase, or bungled a simple proposition in mathematics. But I always thought that he knew my anger came from love and selfless ambition for him, and he seemed to try at all times to earn my approbation.

I knew this, knew his devotion to me was so great he would sometimes labor too much, and still I pushed him even when my desire was to tell him to rest and sleep, or give him some token of my affection. Once I got up and found him sprawled at my desk. All my papers were disorganized, candle fat had spilled over my notes and a glass of water had tipped on a letter I was writing. I was furious, as I am naturally fastidious in matters of organization, and straightway pulled him to the ground and beat him. He made not one word of protest, said nothing in his own defense, but submitted patiently to my punishment. Only later (and not from him) did I learn that he had been up all night, trying to master a problem I had set him, and had finally fallen asleep through simple exhaustion. It was the hardest thing not to beg his pardon, to resist giving way to sentiment. He never suspected, I think, that I regretted my deed, for once a perfect submission is undermined and questioned, then all authority dissolves, and the weaker are the greatest losers. We see this everywhere we look.

I was aware, of course, of Matthews connections with men of dubious loyalty and opinion, and could not forbear to use him on occasion to run errands and listen to gossip. In this often distasteful and dishonorable business he was invaluable, for he was both observant and intelligent in his manner. Unlike many of those I was forced to rely oncutthroats, thieves and madmen for the most part, whose word could never be taken on trustMatthew soon won my complete confidence. I called him in to me when I was in London, and wrote to him every second day while in Oxford, for I delighted in his company and missed it badly when we were apart as, I hope, he missed mine.

By the time he came to me that morning in 1663, he had been my servant for several years and had grown in stature to the point that I knew I would soon have to find him a permanent position of his own. Already I had delayed too long, for he was rising twenty, and outgrowing his tutelage. I could see him straining, and knew that if he was not soon released, he would come to resent my authority. But I held him to me still, unable to let go. I blame myself for this greatly, and think that his desire to leave me may have made him incautious.

When he told me he was to deliver a package to the private mails on behalf of a group of radicals, I immediately took notice. He did not know what this package was but had undertaken to take it to a merchant who delivered mails on his ships. It was common enoughespecially amongst those who did not wish their letters to be read. The unusual occurrence was that someone like Matthew was to perform a task more suited for a child. It was not certain, but he had a feeling that the package might be of significance, especially as the destination was the Low Countries.

For many months now, there had been rumblings all over the country, with shadowy figures flitting about and mutter-ings of discontent. But there was no form or unity to the collection of reports which allowed me to discern the shape of their plans. Left to themselves, these radicals presented no serious threat to anyone, so great were their divisions and despair; but, should a man of authority and skill organize and fund them properly they could easily become so. Matthew had, I thought, provided the first beginnings of that external correspondence I had long been looking for. As it turned out, he was wrong, but it was the best mistake he ever made.

Excellent, I said. Bring me the package. I will have it opened, examine the contents and send you on your way.

He shook his head. Not so simple, Im afraid, sir. Wetheyhave learned caution of late. I know I am not suspected in any way but I am to be accompanied from the moment it is put into my hands to the moment I hand it over. It will be impossible for you to have access to it in such a fashion. Not for the time you will need to copy it.

And you are sure it is worth the effort?

I dont know. But you asked me to mention any communication with the exiles

You did very well indeed. Now, your suggestions? You know I value your opinion.

He smiled with pleasure at this small token of regard. I assume it will stay in the merchants house until it is placed on board one of his ships. But not for long; they want it on its way as quickly as possible. That, perhaps, will be the only opportunity for obtaining it in secret.

Ah. And what is the name of this merchant?

Di Pietro. He is a Venetian and has a house near the Tower.

I thanked him profusely for his work, and gave him some small money as a reward, then dismissed him to consider what he had said. It troubled me a little, even though it made no obvious sense. For what was a Venetian doing helping sectaries? In all probability he was merely carrying mail for a fee, uninterested in either senders or recipients, but I was mindful that this was the second time the name of di Pietro had arisen. That fact alone made me more determined to examine those letters.

I had some leisure to ponder the problem, but not muchMatthew was due to deliver the package the following evening. Bennet had told me to leave di Pietro alone; but he had also told me to find out about the kings enemies in England. He had not told me what to do when these two commands were in contradiction.

So I went to Tom Lloyds coffee shop, where men of trade were wont to gather to exchange news and organize themselves into better profits. I knew some people in this world, as I would occasionally venture capital in this fashion, and had learned who was to be trusted and who deserved only to be shunned. Particularly, I knew a man called Williams who spent a considerable amount of time gathering up individuals with money to risk, and putting them in contact with traders who needed finance. Through him, I had placed to advantage some small part of my surplus funds in the East Indies, and also with a gentleman who captured Africans for the Americas. This latter was by far the finest investment I ever made, the more so because (the captain of the vessel assured me) the slaves were instructed vigorously in the virtues of Christianity on their voyage across the ocean and thus had their souls saved at the same time as they produced valuable labor for others.

I told Williams, when I ran him to earth, that I was interested in putting some funds into the activities of an Italian house called Cola, and wondered whether this man was sound and trustworthy. He looked at me a little strangely, and replied cautiously that, as far as he knew, the house of Cola was funded entirely on its own resources. He would be very surprised indeed to discover that he was bringing in outsiders. I shrugged, and said this was what I had been told.

Thank you for the intelligence, then, he said. Your news confirms what I have suspected.

Which is?

That the house of Cola must be in considerable trouble.

Venices war against the Turks has devastated his business, which has always been in the Levant. He lost two ships last year with full cargoes, and Venice still cannot prise open markets controlled by the Spaniards and Portuguese. He is a fine trader; but he has fewer and fewer people with whom he can trade.

Is this why he set up here?

Undoubtedly. I believe that without the goods England takes from him, he would not float for long. What, exactly, is this venture?

I said I wasnt sure, but had been assured it was of the greatest potential.

Probably to do with printed silks. Very profitable, if you know what you are doing, but a disaster if you do not. Sea water and silk do not mix very well.

Does he have his own ships?

Oh, yes. And very well-found vessels they are.

He has an agent in London, I believe. Called di Pietro. What is he like?

I know him only a little. He keeps himself to himself. He doesnt mix much with others in the trading world, although he is well in with the Jews of Amsterdam. Again a warning for you, for if we go to war with the Dutch, that connection will be worse than useless. The house of Cola will have to choose which side it is on, and will inevitably lose yet more business.

How old is di Pietro?

Oh, old enough to know what he is doing. In his fifties, I believe. He talks occasionally of going back home and living an easier life, but says his employer has too many children who need to be provided for.

How many children?

Five, I believe, but three are daughters, poor man.

I grimaced in sympathy, even though the man might well turn out to be an enemy. I knew enough to be aware that for a trader, whose lifeblood depended on keeping his capital close by, three daughters could be a killing burden. Fortunately, even though my two sons were both fools, they were presentable enough to be married to women of fortune.

Indeed, a grave disappointment, Williams continued.

Especially as neither of the sons is minded to follow him. One is a priest andbegging your pardon, doctoruseful only for consuming money rather than creating it. I believe the other plays the soldier; he did so, at least. I have not heard news of him for some time.

A soldier? I said with astonishment, for this quite important fact had been entirely missed by the picture dealer, and I made a note to reprove him for his laxity.

So I understand. Perhaps he never showed any inclination to trade and the father was too wise to force him. That was why Cola married the eldest daughter to a cousin in the Levant business.

Are you sure hes a soldier? How do you know this? I said, returning to the question and, I could see, arousing Williamss suspicions.

Doctor, I do not know any more, he replied patiently. All I know is what I hear around the coffee shops.

Tell me what you hear, then.

Knowing about the son will reassure you about investing in his business?

I am a cautious man, and believe in knowing everything I can. Wayward children, you must admit, can be a ferocious drain. What if the son is in debt, and his creditors make a claim on the father while he has my money?

Williams grunted, not believing me but willing not to press.

I was told by a fellow merchant who tried to open trade in the Mediterranean, he explained eventually. By the time the pirates and the Genoese had finished with him, he realized it was hardly worth the trouble. But he spent some time there a few years back, cruising around, and once landed a cargo on Crete for the garrison at Candia.

I raised an eyebrow. It was a brave, or a very desperate, man indeed who would try to run a cargo through the Turks to supply that particular market.

As I say, Williams said, he had taken losses and was desperate, so he took a chance. A successful throw, it seems, as he not only sold his entire cargo but was allowed to take a cargo of Venetian glass back to England by way of reward.

I nodded.

Anyway, there he met a man called Cola, who said his father was a merchant in the luxury trade of Venice. Now, perhaps there are two Colas who are merchants in Venice. I do not know.

Go on.

He shook his head. There you have my entire fund of knowledge on the subject. The doings of the merchants children are not my concern. I have more immediate matters to worry about. What is more, doctor, so do you. So why dont you tell me what it is?

I smiled and stood up. Nothing, I said. Certainly I know nothing which might help you to a profit.

In that case, I am not in the slightest bit interested. But if ever

I nodded. A bargain is a bargain. I am pleased to say that I discharged my debt in due course as, through me, Mr. Williams was one of the first to know about the plans to reequip the fleet the following year. I gave him enough forewarning to allow him to buy up every mast pole in the country, so he could sell them to the navy at the price he named. Between us, we profited handsomely, God be praised.

* * * | An Instance of the Fingerpost | * * *