A VENETIAN JUNE
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By Anna Fuller
A Literary Courtship A Venetian June Peak and Prairie Pratt Portraits Later Pratt Portraits One of the Pilgrims Katherine Day A Bookful of Girls
The Thunderhead Lady By Anna Fuller and Brian Read
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A VENETIAN JUNE
With 16 Illustrations in Color by Frederick S. Coburn
New York & London G. P. Putnam's Sons The Knickerbocker Press
Copyright, 1896 by G. P. Putnam's Sons
Copyright, 1913 by G. P. Putnam's Sons
The Knickerbocker Press, New York
If from the flower of thy perfect gift One drop of cordial be distilled, 'tis thine.
II.—A VENETIAN THOROUGHFARE 13
III.—A PAIR OF POLLYS 25
IV.—A REVERIE 37
V.—THE SIGNORA 49
VI.—A FESTA 65
VII.—GATHERING POPPIES 87
VIII.—THE PULSE OF THE SEA 109
IX.—BY-WAYS OF VENICE 129
X.—A BENEDICTION 145
XI.—AT TORCELLO 163
XII.—A PROMOTION 179
XIV.—A SUMMER'S DAY 219
XV.—JUNE ROSES 239
XVI.—A SURRENDER 253
XVII.—THE SERENATA 269
XIX.—"DECUS ET PRAESIDIUM" 301
"MAY WATCHED THE YACHT UNTIL IT DISAPPEARED FROM SIGHT" Frontispiece
"BETWEEN FROWNING WALLS AND LOW-ARCHED BRIDGES" 4
"TIME-WORN PALACES, AND THE DARKLY DOUBTFUL WATER AT THEIR BASE" 6
"ON A STONE BRIDGE, LEANING AGAINST THE IRON RAILING, STOOD A WOMAN IN A SULPHUR SHAWL" 8
"THEY WERE PASSING THE CHARMING LITTLE GOTHIC PALACE KNOWN AS THE HOUSE OF DESDEMONA" 14
"THEY HAD MOUNTED TO THE HIGH GALLERY THAT SPANS THE SPACE BETWEEN PILLAR AND PILLAR" 50
"THE GONDOLA IS THE CENTRE OF EVERYTHING; IT IS VENICE AND A LIVING CREATURE BESIDES" 72
"NOW AND THEN THEY STOPPED AT SOME DOORWAY OPENING UPON THE WATER, WHERE THEY LANDED" 138
"A COURTYARD EMBELLISHED BY AN EXQUISITE OLD STONE STAIRCASE" 140
"THE MADONNAS, UNDER THEIR IRON CANOPIES, LOOKED DOWN, SERENE AND BENEFICENT" 142
"WHERE THE LOVELIEST OF ALL THE PARASOL MADONNAS KEEPS GUARD OVER THE STILL LAGOON" 166
"THE MORNING WAS TRULY VENETIAN, SOFT AND FAIR AS A DREAM" 170
"UNDER THE BEAUTIFUL COLONNADE OF THE CATHEDRAL" 172
"MAY WATCHED THE WATER-LOGGED CRAFT AS IT VANISHED UNDER A DISTANT BRIDGE" 224
"THE SERENATA" 272
"IT SEEMS AS IF THE LAGOONS BELONGED TO THEM THIS EVENING" 316
The gondola stirred gently, as with a long, quiet breath, and a moment later it had pushed its way out from among the thronging craft at the steps of the railway quay, and was gliding with its own leisurely motion across the sunlit expanse of the broad Canal. As the prow of the slender black bark entered a narrow side-canal and pursued its way between frowning walls and under low arched bridges,—as the deep resonant cry of the gondolier rang out, and an answer came like an echo from the hidden recesses of a mysterious watery crossway, the spirit of Venice drew near to the three travellers, in whose minds its strange and exquisite suggestion was received with varying susceptibility.
To Pauline Beverly, sitting enthroned among the gondola cushions, this was the fulfilment of a dream, and she accepted it with unquestioning delight; her sister May, at the bar of whose youthful judgment each wonder of Europe was in turn a petitioner for approval, bestowed a far more critical attention upon the time-worn palaces and the darkly doubtful water at their base; while to Uncle Dan, sitting stiffly upright upon the little one-armed chair in front of them, Venice, though a regularly recurrent experience, was also a memory,—a memory fraught with some sort of emotion, if one might judge by the severe indifference which the old soldier brought to bear upon the situation.
Colonel Steele was never effusive, yet a careful observer might have detected in his voice and manner, as he gave his orders to the gondolier, the peculiar cut-and-dried quality which he affected when he was afraid of being found out. Careful observers are, however, rare, and we may be sure that on their first day in Venice his two companions had other things to think of than the unobtrusive moods of a life-long uncle.
Suddenly the gondola swung out again upon the Grand Canal, a little below the Rialto bridge, and again all was light and life and movement. Steamboats plied up and down with a great puffing and snorting and a swashing about of the water, gondolas and smaller craft rising and falling upon their heaving wake; heavily laden barges, propelled by long poles whose wielders walked with bare brown feet up and down the gunwale in the performance of their labour, progressed slowly and stolidly, never yielding an inch in their course to the importunities of shouting gondolier or shrieking steam-whistle. Here the light shell of a yellow sandolo shot by, there a black-hooded gondola crept in and out among the more impetuous water-folk. Over yonder the stars-and-stripes floated from a slim black prow, a frank, outspoken note of colour that had its own part to play among the quieter yet richer hues of the scene. It was like an instantaneous transition from twilight to broad day, from the remote past to the busy present, whose children, even in Venice, must be fed and clothed and transported from place to place.
"Yes, that is the Rialto," said Uncle Dan, rousing to the contemplation of a good substantial fact. "It's everywhere in Venice. You're always coming out upon it, especially when you have been rowing straight away from it."
"What a pity it should be all built over on top!" said May, knitting her smooth young brow, as if, forsooth, wrinkles did not come fast enough without the aid of any gratuitous concern for the taste of a by-gone century.
"But just look at the glorious arch of it underneath!" cried Pauline. "Who cares what is on top? And besides," she declared, after a moment's reflection, "I like it all!"
"Has Venice changed much, Uncle Dan?" asked May.
"Venice?" Uncle Dan replied. "Venice doesn't change. It's the rest of us that do that!"—and just at that moment the gondola turned out of the Grand Canal into another narrow, shadowy water-way. Here and there, above the dark current, a bit of colour caught the eye; a pot of geranium on a window-ledge; a pair of wooden shutters painted pink; a blue apron hung out to dry. On a stone bridge, leaning against the iron railing, stood a woman in a sulphur shawl, gazing idly at the approaching gondola. Scarlet, pink, blue, sulphur—how these unrelated bits of colour were blended and absorbed in the pure poetry of the picture!
"How wonderful it is, when things come true!" Pauline exclaimed. "Things you have dreamed of all your life, till they have come to seem less real than the things you never dreamed of at all! I think I must have known that that woman in the sulphur shawl would be standing on that bridge, gazing upon us with her great tragic eyes; so that somehow it seems as if she might have been a mere apparition."
"I think it very likely, for I am sure she has always been there when I have passed," said Uncle Dan, with conviction.
"I didn't see anything tragic about her eyes," May objected. "I thought she looked rather stupid, as if she had forgotten what she came out for."
"Which was probably the case," Uncle Dan admitted. Whence it will be seen that Uncle Dan, gallant officer in the past and practical man of affairs to-day, was as wax in the hands of his nieces, equally ready to agree with each.
Yet Colonel Steele had not the appearance of a man of wax. On the contrary, his spare, wiry figure was full of vigour, his glance was as keen and his speech as imperative as that of the veriest martinet. He had commanded men in his day; he had fought the stern persistent fight of a good soldier, and if, when the great cause was won, he had hung up his sword and sash and laid aside his uniform, he had yet never succeeded in looking the civilian, and his military title had clung to him through thirty years of practical life. Furthermore, if it must be admitted that he looked somewhat older than his sixty years, that fact was not to be accounted for by any acknowledged infirmity, unless, indeed, the stiff leg he had brought with him from his four years' service should be reckoned as such.
"But you like it, May?"
It was Pauline who asked, and she put the question as if she valued her sister's opinion.
"Yes," May answered, in her most judicial manner; "I like it. As you say, it is very much what one expected. But of course it is rather early to judge yet."
As if to refute this cautious statement, the gondola quietly glided out again upon the Grand Canal, in full face of a great white dome, rising superbly from a sculptured marble octagon against a radiant sky. Sky and dome and sculptured figure, each cast its image deep down in the tranquil waters at its base, where, as it chanced, no passing barge or steamboat was shivering it to fragments.
"Ah!" said Pauline, with inarticulate eloquence.
"That is the Salute," Uncle Dan remarked; while May wondered how she liked it.
Half-a-dozen strokes of the oar brought them in among the tall, shielding posts, close alongside the steps of the Venezia. As the hotel porter handed the young ladies from the gondola, the Colonel paused to have a word with the gondolier. The man was standing, hat in hand, keeping the oar in gentle motion to counteract the force of the tide, which was setting strongly seaward.
"Si, Signore!" he answered.
"Why!" May exclaimed, "I had forgotten all about the man!"
A Venetian Thoroughfare
"To the bankers', Vittorio."
"Si, Signore. Will the Signore go by the Grand Canal?"
"By all means. And don't hurry. There is plenty of time."
"Si, Signore! The bank will wait!"
The little jest fell as soothingly familiar upon the ear of Vittorio's one passenger as the dip of the oar or the bell of San Giorgio Maggiore sounding across the harmonising water spaces. And yet the Colonel was only half aware that every word, every inflection of the little dialogue had passed between them on just such an afternoon in May five years ago, and again five years before that, if the truth must be told.
They were passing the charming little Gothic palace known as the House of Desdemona, and we may be pretty sure that the two little stone girls that keep watch there upon the corners of the balcony railing, were reminded by these words that another lustre had slipped by since last they heard them. If they were as observant as they should have been, considering that they had nothing to occupy them but the use of their eyes and ears, they must have noted the fact that while the soldierly figure of the old gentleman had not grown a whit less erect, the many wrinkles upon his clean-cut countenance were perceptibly deepened in the interval. A curious effect of years, those hard-headed little images must have thought. They could perceive no such change in one another's countenances, though they had witnessed the passage of several centuries. But then, the little stone girls had one marked advantage over people of flesh and blood, for they stopped short off at the shoulders. Their creator having made no provision for a heart in their constitutions, they could never grow old,—any more than they could ever have been truly young.
The tide was still going out, and the gondola moved very slowly up stream. The Colonel was silent, as he had been silent during the passage of this particular part of the Canal once in five years since ever so long ago. Presently the gondola, in its leisurely progress, came opposite a pretty old palace with charming rose windows to give it distinction. There were flower-boxes in the balcony, and other signs of habitation, and the Colonel, quite as if he were rousing from a reverie, and casting about for something to say, turned half-way toward the gondolier and asked: "The Signora Daymond, is she here this season?"
"Si, Signore; and her Signor son is also in Venice."
This last statement formed a new departure, the "Signor son" having been absent on the occasion of the Colonel's more recent visits. The announcement excited in him a curious and quite unfounded resentment. Indeed, so disturbing was it, not because of any inherent objectionableness, but because of its implication of a change, that the Colonel found himself quite thrown out of his accustomed line of procedure. That this was the case was made manifest by the fact that he did not adhere so far to established precedent as to wait until after they had passed under the iron bridge before looking quite round into Vittorio's face and asking: "All is well at the little red house? The wife and the children?"
"All well, Signore; only the mother died last winter."
"Your wife's mother, I think it was?"
"Si, Signore; she died in February."
One less mouth to feed, the Colonel thought to himself; and perhaps the thought was apparent to the quick perception of the gondolier, although the padrone only remarked: "An old woman she must have been."
For Vittorio's face grew wistful, and there was a tone of gentle reproach in his voice, as he said: "We should like well to have the mother with us again."
"Of course, of course!" the Colonel assented, eager to disclaim his unspoken disloyalty. "And Nanni? What do you hear from him?"
"He is paying us a visit, the first in three years. He does not forget the old life, and when the Milan doctors told him he must take a long rest, that he needed a change, he said: 'I know it; I need to feel an oar in my hand and the leap of the gondola under my feet.'"
"And does he row?"
"Si, Signore. He has an old tub of a gondola and he paddles about in it all day long and is content as the king. More content, for he is doing what he pleases, and the king,—it is said that he cannot always do as he pleases. If he could we should be better governed."
A puzzled scowl contracted the fine open brow of the gondolier. That a king should not do as he pleased was as puzzling as it was grievous.
"He is doing well, Nanni?"
"Si, Signore, benissimo; and yet he loves the gondola and the old life."
The Colonel drew his brows together as if the statement had not given him unmixed pleasure. "Do you think he is ever sorry for the education and the change?" he asked.
"Sorry? Oh, no! His profession is his life. Even here when he ought to rest, he goes again and again to the Scuola di San Marco, the great hospital, to see the sick people and talk with the doctors. Signore," and Vittorio's voice sank to a stage whisper: "Nanni is writing a book. It is about the sanitation of the houses."
The gondolier had stepped forward close behind the cushioned seat, and was stooping, with bended knee, his head almost on a level with the padrone's. Keeping the oar constantly in motion, and with an occasional deft turn of the wrist to avoid a collision,—for the Grand Canal was a crowded thoroughfare at this hour,—he nevertheless seemed to have eyes only for the erect figure and the grizzled head of his old friend.
"Our benefactor does not permit us to speak to him of what is in our hearts," he said, in his stately Italian; and again his voice dropped, and this time to a wonderfully melodious tone: "But the Madonna listens to us every morning and every evening. We all remember the padrone, even the piccolo Giovanni, whom he has never seen."
A look of comical deprecation crossed the face of the passenger, and he said, rather abruptly: "I hope Nanni is good to the rest of you."
"Si, Signore; Nanni is a good brother; but we are many and he is not rich. Ecco! The gondola of the Signora Daymond. Will the Signore speak with her?"
"Not to-day," the Colonel answered, hastily; and in another instant, before the occupants of the other boat had looked in their direction, Vittorio had stepped back to his post at the stern, and had given a twist of the oar that sent the gondola straight across the prow of a steamboat coming down stream.
"Lungo!" he shouted, as peremptorily as if the great puffing interloper had been a tiny sandolo, and the big boat actually did slow up a bit, while Vittorio swiftly rounded it, thus placing its great hull between his own and the Signora's gondola.
"You're a good oarsman, Vittorio," the padrone remarked. "I always said that I should like to cross the ocean with you."
"I would rather the Signore stayed here," Vittorio exclaimed, while a flashing smile lit up his handsome face; "I would rather the Signore took a little palace and stayed here in Venice!"
Before the Signore had had time to give this time-honoured proposition the consideration which it merited, the gondola was lying alongside the steps at the bankers' door, and his attention was distracted by a very ragged, but seraphically beautiful urchin, who was excitedly wriggling his body through the railing of the adjoining ferry-landing, with a view to pressing his services upon the foreign gentleman. His efforts were finally successful, and when, a few minutes later, the Colonel emerged from the doorway, he found his entry into the gondola relieved of all supposititious perils by the application of five very brown bare toes to the gunwale. As he placed his penny in the tattered hat of his small preserver, he bestowed upon him a smile so benignant that all the rival ragamuffins assembled upon the ferry-landing took heart of hope and shouted, as one boy: "Un soldino, Signor! Un soldino!"
Vittorio, with a look of superb scorn, calculated to convince the uninitiated that he himself had never been a Venetian ragamuffin, gave three long strokes of the oar, which sent the gondola far out upon the Canal, well beyond the reach of such importunities.
"To the hotel, Signore?"
"Yes; the young ladies will be ready to go out by this time. They are my nieces, Vittorio."
"And is it their first visit in Venice?"
"Yes; we have spent the winter in Italy, and we left the best for the last."
"The Signore still loves Venice?"
"Better than any spot in the world. We will take the short cut home, Vittorio."
Then Vittorio, with the deep joy which may hide in the hearts of other men, but never shines in full radiance upon any but an Italian face, turned the gondola into the same narrow rio through which he had rowed his passengers from the station earlier in the day.
The Colonel had caught the flash in the dark face, and his own countenance had assumed an answering mobility. The tension of his first hours in Venice was apt to yield, though not usually as early as this. But then, he had never before had the pleasure of his two precious Pollys in anticipation. As the gondola drew near a certain stone bridge guarded by an iron railing, the sight of a woman in a sulphur shawl, lingering there to speak with a neighbour, gave him a reminiscent sense of amused gratification.
Presently they came round in front of the Venezia, and Uncle Dan looked up to a certain high balcony, whence his coming was hailed by a lively flutter of handkerchiefs.
"Ecco, my nieces!" he remarked to Vittorio, with ill-suppressed pride of ownership; a claim, be it observed, which the two Pollys would have been inclined to dispute; since, according to their own faith and practice, it was they who owned Uncle Dan!
A Pair of Pollys
Five minutes later Uncle Dan and his two Pollys were once more afloat, a beatific company. Their graceful craft dipped and courtesied to the stroke of the oar as it glided swiftly with the out-going tide, past the gilt ball of the custom-house, past the royal gardens and the Piazzetta and the Doge's Palace, past the red tower of San Giorgio, on and on, far out upon the wide lagoons. Pauline, sitting beside her uncle among the cushions of state, was so absorbed in the mere joy of this gliding, rhythmic motion, that she scarcely paid due deference to the wonders of the Piazzetta, past which they fared so swiftly. Yes; there were the famous pillars of Saint and Lion, and there, beyond the Ducal Palace, was a passing glimpse of San Marco. It was as it should be, this delightful verification of travellers' tales; she could afford to hold all that in reserve. But just to-day, just at this moment, she only wanted to watch the slender prow, skimming the wonderful opaline waters, drawing ever nearer to those mystic islands floating over yonder like a dream within a dream. She wondered vaguely at May's vivid alertness; for her sister, claiming the privilege of youth, was enjoying the freedom of the gondola, perching here and there as her fancy prompted, in the ample forward space, that nothing might escape her eager, critical attention.
"How queer of them to have put those two windows out of line!" May exclaimed, fixing upon the water-front of the Ducal Palace a glance of disapproval beneath which the stately old pile blushed rosy red. At least it was at that moment that she first observed the pinkness of its complexion. "But it's a lovely colour," she hastened to admit; "and those columns in the second story are perfectly dear."
"They have been a good deal admired," Uncle Dan observed dryly, yet with a friendly twinkle that flickered over into the crow's-feet which were such an important feature of his equipment as uncle. And May, nothing daunted, pursued her own train of thought with unflagging spirit.
"Vittorio, which way is the Lido?" she asked presently, in her crispest Italian. She was sitting on the carpeted steps at the prow, whence she had been regarding, with a quite impersonal interest, the swaying motion of the supple, picturesque figure at the oar. She was not sure that she altogether approved of the broad white straw hat, with fluttering ends of blue ribbon, nor of the blue woollen sash with its white fringe which waved back and forth as its wearer trod the deck; but these were minor details, and the total effect was undeniably good.
Vittorio, accustomed to that particular kind of attention which the tourist bestows impartially upon man or gondola, the briccoli whose clustering posts mark the channels in the lagoon, or the towers of the mad-house rising from yonder island,—had continued his unswerving gaze straight over the head of the Signorina. At the sound of his name his bearing changed. Lifting his hat, he took a step forward, and, still plying the oar with his right hand, he said: "Over yonder is Sant' Elisabetta del Lido, where the tourists go. But the Lido reaches for miles between us and the sea,—as the Signore will tell you," he added, with the careful deference that the Colonel knew so well.
The familiar voice of the gondolier, striking across his meditations, had a singular effect upon the Colonel. It made him aware that this was a different Venice from the one which Vittorio had been wont to show him. What had become of the pensive quality of the atmosphere, the brooding melancholy of its impression upon him? Where, he wondered, half-resentfully, was the dim oppression, the subtle pain he had heretofore associated with these tranquil water spaces? What witch-work were those girls playing with the traditions of twenty-five years? He glanced from one to the other of their unconscious faces, each absorbed after its own fashion. After all, it was pleasant to look upon the world through young eyes. No fear but the old preoccupation would reassert itself in due time. But somehow his mind declined to concern itself with that just now, and with a half-humorous deprecation, he resumed his contemplation of his two Pollys.
His claim to such a unique possession formed in itself an achievement upon which the Colonel prided himself not a little. He often recalled his chagrin when his sister Mary,—Polly as he, and he alone had called her,—failed to give her eldest daughter her own name. How could he, a totally inexperienced uncle, enter into satisfactory relations with a young person encumbered with the stately cognomen of Pauline? She was sure to be haughty and unapproachable. No wonder that she puckered up her face in hostile protest as often as he offered her a perfunctory salutation. He was becoming fairly afraid of the little month-old personage, when one day, he hit upon the reassuring device of turning Pauline, with all its conservative dignity, into Polly. If the testimony of a gentleman and an officer was to be relied upon, their good understanding dated from that hour. For Uncle Dan was willing to take his oath that the very day on which the two soft, ingratiating syllables fell upon the small pink ear, the small pink face relaxed into an expression of kindly tolerance, blossoming out a few days later into that ecstatic first smile which had sealed his subjugation.
Uncle Dan was perhaps not thinking of this circumstance, as he glanced to-day at the serenely blissful young face beside him, a face which had never in all these years begrudged him a smile. Yet such reminiscences were not wholly foreign to his thoughts, and they doubtless lent their own agreeable though unrecognised flavour to his meditations, as he looked upon the Venetian lagoons through the eyes of his Pollys.
In the course of time two other little maids had come upon the scene,—Susan and Isabella were their unsuggestive names. Married now, both of them, Uncle Dan was wont to state, parenthetically; and indeed, if the truth be known, he had always taken a parenthetical view of these unexceptionable little nieces. But when his Polly had remained for seven years without a rival in his affections, a fourth small damsel had presented herself, and had been regarded by her parents as the logical candidate for her mother's name. From that time forth the Colonel was the happy possessor of two Pollys, and it would have been difficult to say which had the more complete ascendency over him. Big Polly and little Polly he called them, and before the little one was well out of long clothes he had formed the project of showing his Pollys the world.
The death of his sister having occurred some years since, his brother-in-law's second marriage, which took place after a due interval, left Uncle Dan with a free hand to carry out his project. He could not but feel indebted to Beverly for taking a step which rendered him independent of daughterly ministrations, though such a proceeding ran counter to one of the Colonel's most perverse and therefore most valued theories. That a woman should take a second husband had long seemed to him both natural and proper, but the reasons were obvious, to his mind at least, why a man should be more constant. Be that as it may, however, here they were, Uncle Dan and his Pollys, and to-day, of all days, the Colonel was little disposed to cavil at anything.
"What good manners this man has!" Pauline remarked, as Vittorio made his answer to the Signorina.
"Yes"; Uncle Dan replied. "He never slips up on that."
"Where does he get it?"
"A family trait. His father had it when he used to row me twenty-five years ago, and I've no doubt his forbears were all like that. It's a matter of race."
"A matter of race!" cried May. "Why, Uncle Dan, when that Italian in the train the other day stared us out of countenance and we asked you to do something about it, you told us it was the custom of the country!"
"That's only Uncle Dan's way of shirking his responsibilities," Pauline explained. "It's lucky for you, May, that I'm getting on in life. I don't know what you would do if you hadn't any better chaperon than Uncle Dan."
"And yet, you don't seem so very old," May remarked, rather doubtfully, tilting her golden head at a critical angle. "I don't believe anybody would suspect you of being twenty-seven."
"That's a comfort," laughed Pauline, with a humorous appreciation that was like Uncle Dan's.
Pauline Beverly had not, like her sister, a reputation for beauty, yet she possessed undeniable charm. Her hair was of a sunny brown, and softly undulating; her eyes were of the same shade as her hair, and capable of a changing light, and, when she smiled, her face, soft and pure, but not brilliant in colouring, had somehow the look of a brook rippling over brown pebbles in a shady place, where the sunshine comes in threads and hints, rather than in an obliterating flood of light. The years, whose sum seemed to May so considerable, had performed their modelling very gently, conferring upon the countenance that winning quality which is the gift of those who habitually think more of others than of themselves.
They were coming in past the red sentinel-tower of San Giorgio, May still sitting on the low steps facing the stern of the gondola. As the young girl looked past her companions, across the silvery spaces of the lagoon, her eyes grew dreamy and far-away. So marked was the phenomenon, that Uncle Dan was moved to exclaim: "A penny for your thoughts, Polly."
May started, for she was not often caught sentimentalising. Then, with the directness which characterised her, she said: "I was wondering whether one might not perhaps find a soul here in Venice."
"A soul? What kind of a soul?"
"Oh, any sort would do, I suppose. You know Signor Firenzo told me my voice was bellissima, but that I hadn't any soul."
"Perhaps Signor Firenzo is a better judge of voices than of souls," Pauline suggested, with a confident little smile.
"A young girl like you hasn't any business with a soul," Uncle Dan declared. "If you think you see one coming over the lagoon you had better turn round and look at the Lion of St. Mark's. He hasn't the sign of a soul, yet he's the best of good fellows, as anybody can see."
May promptly turned, and fixed her eyes upon the classic beast in question.
"I didn't know that lions had such long, straight tails," she remarked.
"The wings strike me as being more out of the common," Uncle Dan chuckled, much reassured by Polly's ready return to the judicial attitude.
"I should almost think," said Pauline, musingly, "that a lion that had wings and a taste for literature might perhaps have a soul after all!"
When Vittorio was told to come for them in the evening, he had cast a significant glance at a certain radiant white cloud, billowing in the West, and said: "Speriamo"; which, in the vocabulary of the gondolier means: "Let us hope for the best and prepare for the worst." Upon which the cloud had gradually taken on more formidable proportions, until, just at dusk, it burst in a torrent of rain, which swept the Grand Canal clear of sight-seers, and sent the nightly serenaders, who usually act as magnets to the wandering gondolas, into the hotels for refuge. A band of them were established in the long, wide corridor of the Venezia, where their strong, crude voices and their twanging strings reverberated rather noisily.
Wondering how it must seem to have nerves young enough to sustain such rough treatment, the Colonel abandoned his nieces to their self-inflicted ordeal, and mounted the stairs to his own familiar quarters. And there, as he closed the door behind him, he ceased to speculate upon such ephemeral matters.
He had come up, ostensibly to write some letters, but instead of doing so, he lighted a cigar, and seated himself at the window, watching the swoop of the rain along the hurrying waters of the Canal. The tide was coming in and the wind was with it. One gondola at the ferry was struggling across the current, with difficulty held to its course by the efforts of its straining oarsman. The passengers had taken refuge under the felze, or gondola hood. Impatient of the slow progress of the boat, the Colonel looked down into the hotel-garden directly beneath his windows, which was drowned in a moist blur, that only seemed intensified where it focused about the electric lights. Over there again, across the Canal, stood the great Salute, showing ghostly and unreal in its massive whiteness, half obliterated by the driving rain. It would have seemed that the most perfunctory letter-writing might have been an improvement upon such a prospect as that. Yet the Colonel sat on, puffing in a desultory manner at his excellent cigar, and reflecting that another five years had gone by.
A curious thing, he was thinking to himself, how inevitably he found himself in Venice once in five years. It was not in his plan to do so. He would have been just as ready to return after an interval of two years, or of three; but, for one reason or another, he never seemed able to arrange his affairs to that end until the fifth year had come round. Somebody was sure to die and leave him executor of his will; or this or that charity of which he was treasurer made a point of getting into a tight place. To-morrow was the twenty-ninth of the month;—to-morrow always was the twenty-ninth on his first arrival in Venice. Yet that, too, was the merest accident, as he assured himself with some heat. None of these things was premeditated.
He should call upon her to-morrow,—certainly. It would be a downright discourtesy to wait until they had met by chance. He wondered if she were expecting him. Probably not; she had other things to think of, especially now that her son was with her.
It would be a pleasure to see her,—her beautiful, friendly eyes, that enchanting smile, that wonderful turn of the head. As though she could ever have cared for a battered old wreck like him! And yet he knew, with an indubitable knowledge, that he should ask her again. And the answer would be the same as it had been twenty-five years ago, when she was but a three-years' widow.
He had been hasty, he had not sufficiently respected her past. He should have waited. And yet, when he came again, after five years, perhaps that, too, was an error of judgment. Perhaps his coming, after so long an interval, caused the revival of old memories, caused a shock which might have been avoided if he had ventured sooner. And then, when another five years had passed, he had begun to age. A man who has seen field service has not the staying powers of other men. That London doctor knew all about it in a moment. Yes, he had already begun to age, fifteen years ago. And now!
The Colonel relighted his cigar, which had gone out. How the rain kept at it! He could hear the swish of it on the wall of the house across the garden. Even Venice could be dreary.
He had never seen her anywhere else. He did not ask himself why he had refrained from seeking her out in her own home, not five hundred miles from his own,—why he had always come to her here in Venice, where all her married life had been spent. After all, a man does what he must. And to-morrow he should ask her again! He did not wish to, he did not even intend to. He could resolve not to, here, in cold blood, with the disheartening rain blotting out the rose-bushes down below, and a disheartening conviction of failure blotting out his nerve and courage. But to-morrow she would rise to meet him, in her own gracious way; he should touch her beautiful, firm hand, where a single jewel shone. He thought if he could ever see another ring upon that hand, one which, having no significance of its own, might weaken the significance of that diamond, now grown old-fashioned in its low setting, there might be a chance for him. But, no; there would be but the one ring, and there would be no chance for him;—and yet he should ask her!
There was another gondola struggling across the Canal. Why should anyone be out in such weather? It must be a lover, or some such sanguine person, bent, as like as not, upon a fruitless errand. The Colonel had but scant sympathy with lovers; they so rarely had any discrimination.
Yes, she would come forward, with extended hand, to meet him. He wondered whether the streak of grey on the right temple would have widened appreciably. Perhaps it would have spread itself, like a fine white film of lace, over the abundant hair. It would probably be very becoming. That was another curious thing; every time he saw her she had grown more beautiful. The years that had dealt so harshly with him had touched her only to an added grace and tenderness; experience had drawn only noble lines upon her face, and there was an ever-increasing warmth and graciousness of countenance which was infinitely finer than the bloom of youth. People made a great deal of youth, but really, when you came to think of it, what a meagre, paltry thing it was! A man hardly began to live before he was thirty-five!
"Uncle Dan, may we come in?"
The door flew open, and two young persons, with all the disabilities of youth upon their heads, came rustling in upon the old bachelor's misanthropic reverie. Instantly the atmosphere had changed.
"It was very good fun," May remarked, as she perched upon the arm of her uncle's chair. "They shrieked Margherita and Santa Lucia and a lot of opera airs, till we thought we should lose our tympanums, and so we came away."
"We were in quite as much danger of losing our manners," Pauline interposed. "We sat next a delicious English girl, pretty as a picture and unresponsive as a statue, and we simply dragged her into conversation. She took us for English and was terribly shocked to find we were Americans, and not even Canadians at that. 'You don't mean to say that you come from the States!' she cried, quite forgetting that she was a statue. And then May got wicked, as she always does when her patriotism is touched."
"Nonsense!" May broke in; "it isn't patriotism; it's self-respect."
"And how did you work off your self-respect?" asked Uncle Dan, deeply interested.
"I told her I thought it was very strange that English people should mistake us. That we never mistook them; we knew at a glance a person from the Isles. She rose to it like a tennis-ball, and asked what isles I referred to. 'Why, the British Isles,' I answered, innocently. And then she looked mystified, and Pauline discovered that the noise was very fatiguing, and we came away."
For half-an-hour Uncle Dan listened, highly diverted, to the chatter of the girls, and it never once occurred to him to remember the meagreness and paltriness of their condition. After they had left him, he turned to the window, feeling that the dreariness without and within was a very transitory and inconsequent thing. And lo! a change had come. The influx of youth would appear to have put to flight other clouds than those of a morbid mind. The rain had altogether ceased. He could see the roses gleaming moistly in the circles of electric light. The serenaders were just pushing away in their big barge, with coloured lanterns swaying in the breeze. They were beginning to sing, and their voices sounded sweet and melodious in the open air. Above the Salute the clouds were breaking away, and there were stars gleaming in the deep blue clearing.
"Have you seen the stars, Uncle Dan?" came Pauline's voice through the key-hole. "We're going to have a glorious day to-morrow!"
They had been spending an hour among the wonderful glooms and gleams of St. Mark's, and now they had mounted to the high gallery that spans the space between pillar and pillar. The Colonel had looked twice at his watch, for he had an appointment with himself, so to speak, and he proposed to leave the girls to the study of the gold mosaics which they seemed inclined to take seriously. For the moment they were leaning upon the stone balustrade, looking down into the great dim spaces of the church.
"I wish I knew whether it was really good," said May, lifting her golden head in deprecation of a possibly misguided admiration. "It is so beautiful that I'm dreadfully afraid it is meretricious."
"It is really good," said a voice close at hand. "I think we may set our minds at rest about that."
The voice was its own passport and no one thought of taking the remark amiss. Uncle Dan who had been consulting his watch for the third time, looked up with a twinkle of good understanding, which the appearance of the speaker justified. The young man was possessed of a good figure and a good face, as well as of a good voice.
Somewhat startled, the girls turned and discovered that they had been obstructing the narrow passage.
"Oh, I beg your pardon!" they both cried, as they retreated into an angle of the gallery. "You couldn't pass us by."
"I didn't particularly want to," the stranger replied, quite at his ease. "This is one of the best points of view," and it was much to his credit that he did not give the obvious turn to his remark by looking at the two girls as he made it, for neither the beauty of the youthful sceptic nor the quiet distinction of her sister was likely to have been lost upon a man of his stamp. That they were sisters, unlike as they were, could not have escaped the most casual observer.
"Then you know what is good," May remarked, in perfect good faith.
"I know this is good," he answered; "and I am sure it is much too good to be interrupted."
He was at the disadvantage of holding his hat in his hand, in deference to place, so that he was unable to indicate a deference to persons by lifting it. Yet he took his leave with so good a manner that the Colonel was moved to detain him. As the stranger made his way past him, the elder man remarked: "It must be worth while to be up on architecture in this part of the world."
"It's worth while to be up on architecture in any part of the world," the young man replied. "Where there is nothing to see there is all the more to do."
He paused a moment, as if St. Mark's were really more interesting than his own opinions. Then: "Have you travelled much in our own West?" he asked.
"No," was the Colonel's unblushing admission; for he was a New Englander of the New Englanders and valued his own limitations.
"There's good work going on out there; it's a great field."
"But surely you are not a Westerner!" the Colonel protested.
"No; but I sometimes wish I were. It's the thing to be."
There was no challenge in his voice, yet Colonel Steele was half inclined to take umbrage at the unprejudiced statement of fact. The ease, however, with which the young man again indicated a courteous leave-taking without the aid of a hat disarmed criticism, and as the Colonel watched the slowly retreating figure, he willingly accorded to the heresy the indulgence due to youthful vagaries. To be sure, he could not remember that an exaggerated estimate of the Great West had ever been a vagary of his own youth. But then, he supposed that the West had made advances since his day!
A glance at his watch changed the direction of his thoughts, and a few minutes later Vittorio was rowing him swiftly, with the tide, up the Grand Canal. Just as the noon gun roared out from the base of San Giorgio, the Colonel rang the bell of the Palazzo Darino.
She was sitting, the lady of his evening reverie, the lady of a life-long reverie, one might as truly say, just as he had hoped to find her, alone and disengaged. Two or three open letters lay upon the table beside her, but they lay there meekly, as if they knew that they must bide their time.
"Ah! Colonel Steele!"
She spoke his name as no one else had ever done, somehow as if it were a title of nobility, and as she came forward to meet him, the soft rustle of her garments filled him with content. He took the extended hand, and, bending above it, he noted the diamond, in its low, old-fashioned setting, gleaming there alone.
"I am glad you are faithful to Venice," she said. "I hoped you might come this year."
"And you still come every year?"
The white film had spread just as he had anticipated. He could see how complete it was, as she seated herself in the full light of the open window. The Colonel had sometimes been startled to find how his premonitions in regard to her had come true. One year he had said to himself: she will be paler than usual; I wonder if she has been ill. And he had found that she had been ill, and there was a fragility and pallor about her that seemed to him quite heart-breaking. Again he had said to himself: she will be wearing crape as in the old times; I wonder why. And when he had come to her she had told him of her mother's death a few months previous. So to-day he had known of that lace-like whiteness of the beautiful head, and of a certain deepening of the depression of the cheek and chin, which had not been there five years ago.
"Yes," she was saying. "I don't find Venice anywhere else, and so I come over every year. Happily, I like the voyage."
The Colonel did not like the voyage but that was a painful fact which he had never felt called upon to admit.
"This year I have my boy with me," she added. "That is a great pleasure."
"And I have my nieces," he replied, deterred by a curious jealousy from pursuing the subject of the boy.
"How delightful! That is, I suppose you find it so, since you have brought them."
"Oh, yes; it makes quite a different thing of travelling. We came over in October. We have been wintering in Rome."
He wondered how he should put it this time. Five words usually sufficed,—five words that meant so much to him, and so little, so intolerably little to her.
"I am glad you have young people with you," she said. "We need them more and more as we grow older."
"Well, that depends," the Colonel demurred, too loyal to his Pollys, even here and now, to allow them to be regarded generically. "There are not many girls I should want to have on my hands. I think the Pollys are rather exceptional."
"What did you say the name was?"
"And what is the other one's name?"
"Same name. They are both Pollys. I named them myself," he added, with a quite unforeseen revival of that agreeable self-satisfaction which he never could conceal in this connection.
And then, to his own surprise, he found himself entering with much gusto upon the story of their christening. By the time he had finished, he felt quite toned up and invigorated.
"Tell me some more about them," she begged.
She was leaning back in her seat, serenely receptive. The Colonel, sitting opposite to her in the straight-backed chair such as he always chose, noted, with a curiously disengaged pleasure, the wonderful opaline quality of the impression she made. The soft grey folds of her dress, the still more softened grey of the hair, and the deep grey of the beautiful eyes,—none of these quiet shades was dull and fixed. A delicate play of light and shadow made them vital, as the grey of the lagoons is vital, when there are clouds before the sun, and a strange, mystic luminousness traverses their tranquil spaces. She had always reminded him of the lagoons. The association only seemed to make each more exquisite and apart. And now, as he told her about his Pollys, it was with very much the same sense of perfect gratification with which he had taken them out upon the water the day before. There was also the same singular absence of the old, familiar pain and oppression.
"What are they interested in?" she asked, and there could be no doubt in the Colonel's mind that she really cared to know.
"Well; they are interested in pretty much everything, though in a different way. For instance, they are making short work of Italian. They speak better than I do, after all these years," he declared with delighted self-depreciation, "though perhaps that's not much to brag of. One of them has got the accent and the other the grammar, so they pull very well together. Then the younger one can sing like a bird."
The Colonel was warming to his subject, and the Signora, as he liked to call her, did not interrupt.
"She has been studying with Firenzo in Rome. He says she's got a tip-top voice and plenty of execution. Sketches, too,—not particularly well, though. Her things look right enough, but somehow they don't say much. Firenzo thinks that's the trouble with her singing. Good voice, you know, but it doesn't speak. Young, I suppose! That's it; eh?"
"Twenty years old, you say? Yes, I should call that young! And the other one? Tell me about her."
"Well, Polly hasn't much ambition. Nice contralto voice, not much cultivated. Rather a contralto little woman, don't you know? The kind that somehow warms the cockles of your heart. Lots of character, too. There's nothing weak about Polly. You'll like her."
"I'm sure I shall. And what has she been about all these years? Twenty-seven, did you say?"
"Well, family matters mostly. They've kept her pretty busy. She's the eldest, you know. She has married off three of them already."
"No; two sisters and a father. There's nobody left now, but these two."
It was all very like that trip on the lagoons yesterday; only, in the one case, he had seen the lagoons through the eyes of his Pollys, while to-day he seemed to be seeing his Pollys through the eyes of the woman he loved. And he found that gracious sharing of his interest a balm to the old wound, and he was soothed and beguiled into a strange new acquiescence. It would come again, the importunate trouble. He should, in a very few minutes, bring down upon himself that gentle refusal, more poignant in its kindness than scorn or misprision would have been.
As he sat there touching upon one characteristic and another of his Pollys, in the direct, soldierly fashion that cuts through ordinary modes of speech, clean and incisive as a sword-point, he vaguely felt that this was only a postponement, a respite. It could not last, this extraordinary, unaccountable resignation. He was not sure that he should approve of it if it did. But, meantime, he had not told her how the girls had enjoyed riding on the Campagna, and how they had followed the hunt one day, and not a bone broken! Nor how they had got to know their way about Rome like a book and how—really, the subject was quite inexhaustible!
The sun was shining like mad upon the palaces opposite, and as he looked across the flower-boxes in the window, he felt quite in sympathy with this high noon of light and color. A steamboat shrieked beneath the window, and the discordant sound hardly seemed an intrusion. And then, suddenly, taking him quite at unawares, a firm step resounded upon the hard, smooth conglomerate of the broad passage-way, and—"Here is Geof!" his mother announced. "You would hardly know him, Colonel!"
The Colonel rose to his feet and turned toward the door, guiltily conscious that he had evaded the subject of Geof. As his eye fell upon the lithe, vigorous figure coming toward him, he recognised the fact that evasion was no longer possible. An instant later he had recognised the young architect of Western proclivities whom he had taken such a liking to an hour ago.
"So you are Geof!" the Colonel exclaimed. "I might have known it, too, though I had quite forgotten that you were grown up."
"And you are Colonel Steele! Why, this is great! You used to be first-rate to me when I was a little chap. Were those your daughters in the gallery?"
"No, my nieces," said the Colonel, and his spirits went up like a cork. He knew the Signora was great friends with her son, but she evidently understood where to draw the line!
"And I may bring them to see you, Signora?"
"The sooner the better. Why not this afternoon? We can have tea early and get a couple of hours on the lagoon in the pretty light. I'm afraid you have an engagement, haven't you, Geof?"
"Oh, I don't mind throwing Kenwick over. He'll keep," and the young man stepped to the other window and flung it open.
Geoffry Daymond went down to the door with his mother's old friend, but he had the tact not to offer him a hand across the plank to the gondola; an act of forbearance which was not lost upon the Colonel.
"Not a bit like his mother," the Colonel was saying to himself. "Not a bit. Wonder if he takes after his father. The kind of man that would stick in a woman's memory, I should say."
And then, just as the gondola was passing the house where the little stone girls keep their uncomprehending outlook upon the world, a sharp pang took him, followed by a strange—was it a disloyal?—sense of relief, and he exclaimed, under his breath, "I never asked her!"
"You didn't tell us what a beauty Mrs. Daymond was, Uncle Dan," said May, as they sat at dinner that evening.
They had a small table to themselves, close by one of the long glass doors opening out into the garden. It was a warm evening, and sweet, vagrant perfumes came straying in at the open door, and in the momentary hush which sometimes falls upon the noisiest table d'hote, pretty plashing sounds could be heard in the Canal beyond the garden.
"Not a very easy thing to do," said Uncle Dan, setting down his glass of claret, with a wry face. He felt sure that the wine had been kept on ice. Ugh!
"Have you known her a long time?"
"Yes, Polly; since before you were born."
"What an age!" cried May. "And you never told us a word about her!"
"Fact is," Uncle Dan explained, "I haven't seen her more than once in five or six years, and then only over here. You'll find people don't want to hear about your travels."
Really quite an ingenious turn, the Colonel flattered himself,—to account for the passion of a life-time as an incident of travel! He was so exhilarated over this feat that he was emboldened to pursue the subject. Besides, big Polly had not spoken, and he could not suffer any tribute to the lady of his allegiance to go by default.
"What did you think of her, Polly?" he asked.
"I can only say," Pauline declared, with an earnestness of conviction that was even more expressive than her sister's encomiums, "that if she had not invited us girls to go in her gondola it would have spoiled the afternoon."
"But the son is very nice; didn't you think so?" asked May, seized, in her turn, with the spirit of investigation. "He didn't even seem conceited, which clever people usually are."
"Yes, indeed! he is very nice; how did you like him, Uncle Dan?"
"Geof?" Uncle Dan repeated, rather absently; "How did I like Geof? Oh, I should say he was turning out very well. But I thought you girls had the best of it"; whence it may be gathered that Mrs. Daymond had not only borrowed the two girls, but had offered her son as compensation to the Colonel.
"How pretty the two gondolas will look going about together when we get our new flags," said May. "It will be a regular little flotilla."
"Aren't you expecting a good deal of Mrs. Daymond?" Pauline demurred.
"Why of course we shall go about together. She said she hoped to see a great deal of us while we were here."
The Colonel emptied his claret-glass, while a sense of warmth and well-being stole through his veins, that made him think he must have been mistaken about that ice.
"Are you going to fly the Stars and Stripes?" he asked. He had never considered the prow of a gondola a very fitting situation for the flag he had fought for,—but perhaps the Pollys knew best.
"No, indeed," said May. "We are going to have something ever so much prettier than that."
"Ah, Polly! There's nothing prettier than the Stars and Stripes," the Colonel protested.
"May means more original," said Pauline. "She has had one of her happy thoughts."
"You see, Uncle Dan," May explained, "there are such a lot of national flags on the gondolas, and it seems so stupid not to have something different. So Mr. Daymond and I have concocted quite a new scheme,—or rather the idea was mine and he is going to paint them. We are going to have a sea-horse painted on red bunting, in tawny colors, golds and browns; and Mr. Daymond thinks he shall make one for their gondola on a dark blue ground. Shan't you feel proud to sail the Venetian lagoons with a sea-horse at the mast-head?"
"Proud as a peacock! And the young man is going to paint it for you?"
"Yes; isn't that good of him? And shan't we look pretty?"
"Never saw the time you didn't," Uncle Dan was tempted to say. But he flattered himself that he never spoiled his nieces, and so he remarked instead, with his most crafty grimace: "No, you'll probably look like frights"; which, if the girls had not been quite case-hardened against his thinly disguised compliments, might have had just the disastrous effect he wished to avoid.
Truth to tell, they were neither of them very susceptible to flattery, for neither of them was in the least self-centred. Even May, who was far from sharing her sister's mellow warmth of interest in other people,—even May, with all the crudities and shortcomings of youth still in the ascendant, was too much occupied with her rapidly acquired views of the phenomena about her, to pay much attention to the perhaps equally interesting phenomenon of her own personality. The impression left upon the two girls by their half hour's talk with Geoffry Daymond was characteristic of each. May approved of him because he had been interested in her ideas; and Pauline liked him because he had been interested in her sister.
Whatever the young man's impressions may have been, it may as well be stated at once, that in the course of that tea-drinking he made up his mind that his mother really had a right to expect him to stay with her for the next week or two, and that he should tell Oliver Kenwick to-morrow, that he would have to get somebody else for that tramp through the Titian country. What did he care about the Titian country anyway? Here was Titian himself here in Venice, and lots besides. He would pitch into those flags to-morrow. That was really a very happy thought of the talkative one. He wondered if the quiet one would say more if she got a chance; she did not look stupid. And that reflection had struck him as so preposterous, that he had almost interrupted her sister in her expression of opinion on the subject of the famous bronze chargers that seem always on the point of plunging down from the front of San Marco into the Piazza, to the destruction of the babies and pigeons there assembled, to ask: "Miss Beverly what do you like best in Venice?"
"The gondola," said Pauline, after an instant's reflection—a little pause which proved to be one of her idiosyncrasies.
"The gondola?" he repeated, doubtfully. "The gondola isn't very much by itself."
"But the gondola never is by itself. It's the centre of everything. It's all Venice and a living creature besides—something like a person's heart. Of course I don't mean the gondolas on the souvenir spoons!" she added, with the little ripple, that was so much prettier than a definite smile. Decidedly, Miss Beverly was not stupid.
"You row, of course?" May had considered her question to be quite in line with the conversation. "Is it very difficult?"
"Not after you get the knack. That is, the forward oar gets going after a while. I rather think you would have to begin almost in long clothes as these gondoliers do to get anything like their skill in really handling the boat."
And now, in reply to Uncle Dan's artful substitute for a compliment, one of the prospective frights remarked: "Mr. Daymond says they have a lighter oar that he used to row with when he was a boy. He is going to get it out for us to-morrow, and then we must all learn to row."
"I think I should prefer to learn by observation," Uncle Dan demurred, as he pulled his stiff leg out from under the table. Upon which, dinner being over, the girls went off in search of their wraps, while the Colonel stepped out between the glass doors, and strolled down to the bottom of the garden, where the water lapped the stone parapet.
The dusk had gathered and the stars were coming out. The water was dotted with gondola-lights that twinkled here and there, like detached will-o'-the wisps, the black hulls of the boats not being clearly distinguishable in the shadow. Every gondola was out, excepting the few unlucky ones that were detained for ferry service; for there was to be a festa this evening, and the forestieri,—by which pretty woodsy name the tourist is designated in the most poetic of tongues,—could be counted upon to pay fancy prices.
The Colonel, secure in his possession of Vittorio, took no part in the bargaining that was going on at the hotel steps, a few yards away, and all along the line of the garden wall. He was standing beside the iron railing, pulling at a contemplative cigar, and listening, with considerable relish, to the wrangling of the gondoliers, when he heard a voice just under the wall, saying: "Buona sera, Signore! It's Nanni."
The Colonel had not observed that one of the shadowy barks had glided close in under the wall at his feet.
"Why, Nanni!" he exclaimed; and reaching down over the railing he clasped a strong brown hand.
The man was standing at the stern of the gondola, steadying the oar with one hand. He had flung his hat to the floor of the boat, and as he stood there, bare-headed, the garden lights shining full upon his upturned face, he made a striking picture. His hair was absolutely black, and his face was of the pure Italian type, very dark, and cast in noble lines. About the mouth and eyes, a touch of austere melancholy was discernible, even now, in the animation of the moment. He was like his brother, though his face lacked the sunlit quality which was his brother's chief charm of countenance. On the other hand, the intelligence of his brother's face was here developed into something higher and more serious,—higher and sadder, the Colonel thought, in the moment's pause that followed. He had not seen this protege of his for ten years, and the years had left their impress upon him.
"Vittorio has met with a slight accident," Nanni was saying. "He has twisted his wrist, and if he rows this evening it will get worse. Will the Signore permit me to act as substitute?"
The Signore looked disturbed.
"I don't know, Nanni, how that would work," he said. "My nieces, you know. I'm afraid they would find you out."
"No fear of that, Signore. I'm as good a gondolier as ever I was, and I can hold my tongue."
The Colonel looked at him critically. To the initiated, there was a good deal both in the man's speech and bearing to rouse suspicion. A subtle difference that would hardly be defined as superiority; was it not rather something contradictory, not quite homogeneous, and in so far disadvantageous? The Colonel was not addicted to careful analysis of his impressions, and he felt himself cornered.
"I hope you won't misunderstand me, Nanni," he said, apologetically. "I'm immensely proud of you;—it isn't that. But,—well, it's not my way to talk about things. I suppose it's crochety, but somehow, I like to keep things separate, you know. If you talk about a thing it usually spoils it."
It did not once occur to the Colonel that the man of education, and presumably of some social standing, would feel any aversion to a temporary relinquishment of these advantages. To the padrone, the skilled physician who owed to him his education, was still, first and foremost, the son of his old gondolier, in whom, when a bright boy of fifteen, a week in hospital with a broken arm had aroused a consuming ambition to be a doctor. The education, the profession, seemed to the Colonel—perhaps because it was primarily due to him,—accidental and extraneous. Fundamentally he was still the gondolier's son, the member of a caste too imperative and enduring in character to yield to circumstances.
And the really noteworthy feature of the situation was the fact that the gondolier's son fully shared the view of the padrone. Once in Venice, among his own people, Giovanni Scuro felt as thoroughly at home in the character of gondolier, as if he had never learned the meaning of the word science. Hence he could answer, with perfect sincerity: "Si, Signore; I understand. But you may trust me. And you will go out with me this evening?"
"Why, yes; I suppose we had better," said the Colonel, somewhat reassured.
"And to-morrow, if Vittorio is not able to row? Of course that is as the Signore wishes. Another gondolier can be had to-morrow for the asking; but to-night, the prices are appalling. They have no consciences, these men."
"We'll see how it works to-night. Ah! there are my nieces. We will meet you at the door. And, by the way, Nanni, have you picked up any English?"
"No, Signore; only French."
As the gondola came up to the landing the party stepped aboard as quickly as might be, to clear the way for others who were waiting their turn, and it occurred to Uncle Dan that the girls might, after all, not notice the new man at the oar. But he had reckoned without May's observant eyes. The moment the boat was free of the crowd, she turned sharp about and looked at the gondolier.
"Why, Uncle Dan," she cried. "We've got a new man! Did you know it?"
"Yes; Vittorio has twisted his hand, and his brother has come to take his place."
"His brother? Oh, yes; he does look like him. We were lucky to get him, were we not?"
"What a pity Vittorio should have hurt his hand!" said Pauline. "I hope it's nothing serious. He was such a nice man."
"No," said the Colonel, incautiously. "His brother says it's nothing serious."
"But he can't know much about it," Pauline urged. "Don't you think he ought to see a doctor?"
"I rather think he will, to-morrow, unless it's all right again."
"If it's a sprain he can't be too careful with it," she insisted.
"What is Italian for sprain?" asked May. "I want to tell the man to have a doctor."
"I'm sure I don't know," said Uncle Dan, trembling for his guilty secret. "I'll tell him."
"How can you tell him, if you don't know how?" May argued. Then, turning abruptly, and glancing up into the intent, forward-looking face, just visible in the uncertain lights of the Canal: "Hasn't your brother seen a doctor?" she asked.
"Si, Signorina," Nanni replied, without an instant's hesitation.
"And what does he think is the trouble?"
"A slight sprain," said Nanni; "he hopes it is nothing serious!"
"That was very sensible of you," said May; "to send for a doctor at once. There, Uncle Dan, now we know the Italian for sprain. I believe in always trying to say everything!" in which startling statement the young girl admitted more than she had intended.
They were just passing the Palazzo Darino, where a gondola lurked in the shadow.
"We shall hardly see them in the crowd," Uncle Dan remarked. "What's your idea, Nanni? Think you can keep us out of the jam?"
"Si, Signore; I know a place where they won't crowd us."
"What a funny name that is for a man," May exclaimed.
"It's short for Giovanni. I got in the way of calling him that when he was a little shaver and used to row me about with his father."
The Canal was twinkling with gondola lights, and as they approached the broad arch of the Rialto the crowd became greater, obliging them to pause now and then, while the dip of multitudinous oars made itself heard, a delicious undertone to the shouts and execrations of excited gondoliers. Presently, however, they had cleared the bridge, and a few strokes of the oar brought them into a quiet little haven formed by two big boats moored alongside the fish-market. As they came to a stop they could already hear the music floating round the great bend of the Canal. The hulls of the two fishing-boats loomed tall and dark at either end of the gondola, while the rays of a lamp in the arcade over yonder fell athwart the yellow-brown sail of one of them, reefed loosely about the mast. There were a good many people on the quay, but they were a quiet gathering. The more aggressive members of the Venetian populace are pretty sure to get afloat on such an occasion, and a dozen different kinds of irresponsible craft were being propelled, with more or less skill, and a distracting absence of etiquette, among the decorous gondolas, whose long-suffering masters shouted themselves hoarse in their efforts to enforce the conventional rules of the highway.
Presently one of the gondolas glided in alongside the Colonel's, and almost before their respective occupants could recognise one another the gunwales of the two boats had been securely lashed together.
"We're just in time," said Geoffry. "We could see the reflection of the lights around the bend, when we were in midstream. Ah, there it comes!"
As he spoke, a brilliant, variegated light fell upon the mass of gondolas a few rods up the Canal, and a moment later the huge structure of red, white, and green lamps, came drifting down-stream. It represented a great temple with dome-like roof topped by a crown of lights, glittering against the dark background of the night. As it drew nearer, the throng of boats in its path thinned a little, and broken reflections of the gleaming lights danced between the gondolas, and sparkled in the oar-drops.
"What do you think of the architecture of it?" May asked, in her fresh young voice, that seemed to dissipate illusion, like a ray of plain daylight let in upon a stage scene.
"I don't perceive any," he said. "Do you?"
"Well, I don't know; I supposed it was meant for a building."
"Oh, no!" said Pauline. "It's meant for a dream. Don't wake us up, May! See; they're stopping in front of the Ca' Doro."
The movement of the great barge had been so slow, that it had halted almost unawares in front of the beautiful palace, and straightway a rosy bengal light lit up the carvings of the fairy-like facade with a magical effect. The band, lurking melodramatically under the gleaming arches of the barge, struck up a prelude, and presently a soprano voice rose high and strong above the wind and stringed instruments, ringing superbly out across the water. The fantastic impression of the scene was so strong that it seemed as if the visible brilliance of the shining lights had entered into the voice itself, giving it a weird and uncanny splendour. The vast floating audience listened, motionless and silent, until the last note went out like a light suddenly extinguished. Then, after a gust of hand-clapping had subsided, the glittering barge moved forward once more, the dip of a hundred oars plashing softly in its wake.
When the mass of the attendant flotilla had passed the mouth of their little haven, the two friendly gondolas glided out amid-stream, in time to see the crown of light lowered within the dome, for the passage under the bridge. The reflections played upon the face of the arch until the massive granite seemed hardly more real than the fairy-like temple of light itself; and then suddenly, the flickering colours vanished from the face of the bridge, and were shining upon the broad under-span of the arch. An instant later it was past and over, and May and Geoffry were comparing impressions with great earnestness on her part and undisguised relish on his.
"How pretty the light must be on the Virgin and the Angel on the other side of the bridge," said Pauline.
"Yes," Mrs. Daymond answered; "I was thinking of that."
Then came a mysterious gliding of the two gondolas, Indian-file, down dark, narrow canals, where were glimpses, through low passage-ways into dimly lighted squares. On one of the bridges, as they passed beneath it, a hollow footstep sounded, and as they looked back they could see a cloaked figure leaning upon the stone parapet. Now and then a chance gas-lamp cast upon the wall beside them the shadow of the gondolier's swaying figure, vanishing then in the black water like a stealthy suicide. Pauline looked round once or twice, involuntarily, to make sure that the man was still there, and once May said: "Nanni, could we get past if we were to meet any one?"
"Si, Signorina," the grave voice made answer; and Uncle Dan felt agreeably confirmed in his impression that Nanni was to be trusted.
Nearly two hours later, the girls were awakened from their first sleep by the soft plashing sound of myriad oars. In a moment they were standing on the balcony in their pretty cashmere wrappers, leaning on the cushions of the stone balustrade. On came the gleaming colours of Italy, not a single light extinguished during the long, slow passage down the Canal; nor did the floating escort seem diminished by so much as a single boat.
A crimson bengal light was flushing the face of the Salute, as the luminous apparition halted before it, and a burst of music rose from the barge. Over yonder, beyond the long, low line of the Giudecca, a pensive old moon was coming up, slow and mist-obscured, as if reluctant to rise upon a world so well able to dispense with its light.
"The old moon always goes to your heart," said Pauline.
"Yes; but it will be young again in a week or two," May observed, consolingly; and at that instant an emerald light struck full upon the white facade of San Giorgio, and straightway the poor old moon was consigned to the oblivion it clearly coveted.
"This is Vittorio's gondola, is it not, Nanni?" asked May, who had an eye for details and had instantly identified the boat.
They had spent the morning sight-seeing, and now they were, according to Uncle Dan, having their reward, coasting along the outer shore of the Giudecca, in the heavenly afternoon light. The Colonel much preferred the easy social conditions of the gondola to the restraint, not to say chill, of church and chapel, where a man must not wear his hat nor speak above a whisper.
May was sitting, as she liked to do, in the little gondola chair, whence she commanded every point of the compass; a position which had the further advantage of facilitating communication with the gondolier.
"Why don't you use your own gondola?" she persisted.
For an instant Uncle Dan's loyalty wavered, and he wondered whether Polly were not perhaps a trifle forward for so young a girl. He had not been struck by it before, and even now he would have challenged such a heresy in another; but, really,—
"Because this is the better gondola," Nanni replied, in the grave, impersonal tone which was in such marked contrast with his brother's eager alacrity.
"I wish Vittorio would get well," May exclaimed, impatiently; "this man isn't half as nice."
"Don't you think so?" Pauline queried. "He is a perfect gondolier."
"Yes; but he is so unapproachable. One could never get confidential with him; one would never ask him about his wife and children, and think how delighted Vittorio was to tell us about each individual bambino!"
"It would not be of much use to ask him," Uncle Dan interposed hastily. "For he hasn't any."
"I have an idea he is poor," said Pauline. "Even poorer than the rest of them. I wonder what is the reason."
"So do I," said May. "Nanni, is your gondola a very old one?"
"Si, Signorina; very old."
"What a pity! It must be very bad for you. Which is your ferry?"
"I don't belong to any."
"But I thought every gondolier belonged to a ferry."
There was no reply.
"Isn't that so?" May insisted.
"Si, Signorina, but I am no longer a gondolier."
"Why, what are you?"
At this juncture Uncle Dan felt it imperatively necessary to interpose again.
"That's San Clemente," he observed, indicating an island half-a-mile away, composed, apparently, of red brick and window-glass.
"How lovely!" May exclaimed; and the indiscriminating response betrayed inattention.
"What are you?" she asked again.
"I do not live in Venice, Signorina; my home is in Milan."
"In Milan? What do you do there?"
"I am attached to a hospital."
There was something peculiarly provocative of curiosity in the laconic replies of the man. May wondered whether his reticence was due to modesty or to moroseness. Perhaps she could find out.
"What do you do at the hospital?" she asked.
For the first time his eyes met hers directly, as he said, with something almost like a challenge in his voice: "I am one of its servants, Signorina."
Yes, May thought, it was moroseness; he was unhappy, and no wonder.
"What a pity!" she cried, with very genuine compassion in her voice. "It can't be half so nice as being a gondolier."
But Nanni was again intent upon his work, rowing with long, steady strokes, his eyes fixed upon the course of the gondola.
"Do you like it as well?" she asked, with a quite inexplicable sense of temerity. She felt herself on the verge of being overawed by the stately reticence of this hospital servant.
"It is my work," said Nanni, in a gentler tone. "A man's work is his life."
"But if you had a good gondola and a place at a traghetto, wouldn't you rather come back to Venice?"
"No, Signorina; I love my work."
"Polly, you ought to have been a lawyer," Uncle Dan remarked, highly amused at the insuccess of her catechising, which he by this time perceived to be harmless.
They had turned in to one of the canals of the Giudecca, that great crescent island whose curve follows the southern line of the city, as the outer arc of a rainbow follows the inner. Not a breath stirred the water of the canal, upon which theirs was the only moving craft. Moored close to the low, brick coping of the quay, which bordered one side of the rio, were two or three fishing-boats, their broad hulls black, their rudder arms rudely carved and gaily decorated. Here, a gorgeous red sail hung loose in the still air; there, a voluminous brown net, bordered with rings and bobbers, was stretched between two stout masts, drying in the sun. Curious great bulging baskets, dingy brown in colour and shaped like giant sea-urchins, depended from the gunwales, half immersed in water, the mortal remains of small, crab-like creatures sticking to their sides. All this picturesqueness, and more besides, was reflected in the placid water. On the one hand was the quay, with its irregular row of houses done in delicious sun-baked colours, in front of which women in sulphur shawls and children in variegated rags were sunning themselves and passing the time of day. On the other side, a tumble-down wall of brick, that once was red, rose out of the water in such formless dilapidation that one could not tell where the reality merged into the reflection; while masses of verdure from a hidden garden tossed their heads above it, or tumbled over it as if enchanted to get a glimpse of themselves in the dark, cool water below. A wooden bridge spanned the canal, glassed perfectly in the still water, and somebody's wash, hung out to dry at one end of the rustic railing, blended acceptably in the quaint harmony of the picture.
Nanni had been rowing slowly, and just there, perceiving that the attention of his passengers was arrested, he stayed his oar. A bird, hidden somewhere among the foliage, in the garden, chose that moment for making a melodious observation to his mate, while a somewhat timid and tentative baby-voice from the quay lisped: "Un soldino," not with any business intention but merely by way of practice. The whole thing was so incredibly pretty that there was nothing to be said about it, and for a number of seconds no one spoke.
Then May exclaimed: "I'm so afraid somebody will say something!" upon which the others laughed, and instantly the oar was put in motion again, the gondola gliding forward under the bridge and past other ruinous, verdure-crowned walls.
"What a shame this man should not be a gondolier," May cried, returning to the charge, with unabated interest. "It does seem as if we might perhaps do something about it."
She glanced up at the grave face, half inclined to press the subject further. The man was gazing straight over the prow of the gondola, not more intent than his brother often was, yet the young girl felt abashed and deterred from her purpose. If it were Vittorio, she told herself, she might be sure that the dark features would break into a flashing smile when she spoke to him. But this man could not be depended upon to look pleased at any casual notice bestowed upon him. She wondered why; she wondered why he was so different. Had he always been like that, or was it his life of exile and servitude? Nothing could convince her that he really liked his work in the hospital, far away from his beautiful Venice. There was some mystery about it, and she hated to be baffled.
"Yes, I always like poking about in the Giudecca," Uncle Dan was saying. "It's chock full of pretty bits, and then you keep coming out on the lagoon again, and like as not there are marsh-birds or people wading about after shell-fish. There's always something going on on the lagoons."
"Why, I should have said that the lagoon was the quietest place in the world," Pauline remarked.
"It is," Uncle Dan admitted. "That's why you are so sure to notice any little thing that happens to be going on!"
Meanwhile the gondolier had unconsciously suited his action to their word, and they had come out upon the lagoon again, and now they were skirting the pretty green Giudecca shore, where scarlet poppies stood bright and motionless in the still sunshine.
"Oh, I want some of those poppies," cried May. "Nanni, could we go ashore and get some of those flowers? How do you call them?"
"They are papaveri, Signorina," he answered; "I will get you some."
"But I want to get them myself."
"That would not be possible, Signorina; it is difficult to land."
He rowed slowly for a few seconds more, and then he backed water and brought the gondola in toward the shore which rose several feet above the water and was formed of loose earth and stones. May, forced to admit that she could not herself land, seated herself on the gondola steps whence she could watch the proceedings. The gondola was creeping closer and closer to the shore, sidling in, for it was only here and there that the water was deep enough to carry the boat. Presently Nanni laid the blade of the oar flat upon the grass and so drew the boat gently in. Then, still keeping his hold upon the shore with the blade of the oar, he laid the other end across the stern, and, assuring himself that the balance was perfect, he found a foothold in the loose earth, and, with one long step, gained the top of the embankment. The gondola gave somewhat beneath his foot, and the stern rose as it righted itself, but the oar-blade did not yield its curiously tenacious hold.
"How nice of him, not to tell us to sit still," May exclaimed. "One does like to be treated like an intelligent being!"
She watched the tall figure moving here and there, stooping to pick half-a-dozen blossoms, giving an occasional glance at the gondola meanwhile, to make sure that all was well. Presently the figure disappeared in the hollow.
"One feels quite abandoned," Pauline remarked. "What would become of us if the boat were to glide off?"
"We could wade ashore," May suggested. "It doesn't appear to be more than a foot deep anywhere."
"I rather think Nanni would have to do the wading," said Uncle Dan.
The tide was going out, slipping so quietly to the sea that here, at this remote anchorage, the receding of the water was imperceptible. The marsh had not yet begun to prick through the sinking tide, and as the eye wandered across the wide, unbroken stretches of the lagoon, it seemed like a vast sea of glass. The day was so clear and so still that the distant spires of Malamocco and Poveglia were mirrored in the lagoon. To the young eyes of the girls, the twin pictures, against their respective backgrounds of sky and water, were as clear-cut as an etching held in the hand.
"Are those real islands, Uncle Dan?" asked Pauline.
But before Uncle Dan could make a fitting rejoinder, May exclaimed: "Oh, look at the poppies!" and all eyes were turned to the shore.
Nanni had suddenly appeared, close above them, a perfect glory of scarlet poppies in his hand. The sun shone full upon them, till they fairly blazed with colour against the background of his dark figure. He dropped on one knee, reaching down to place the flowers in the Signorina's outstretched hand, and as she looked up brightly to thank him, the two figures, with their sharply contrasted colouring, made a startlingly pretty picture in the exquisite setting of water and sky.
The voice rang out musically, as most sounds do, across the water, and, turning, May saw another gondola coming up astern. The curve of the shore had hidden it from view until that moment.
"Do stay just as you are for a minute," cried the same voice, descending to English. "We are out after effects, and we want those poppies."
"Of course you do," said May, "but you can't have them."
"Yes, we can, if you'll only hold them in your hand and let us pilfer with our brushes. You won't lose a single poppy and we shall have them all."
"If you had any artistic sense you would rather have those tilting about on the shore," said May; "but if you prefer an indiscriminate mass of colour you are welcome."
Geoffry Daymond's companion meanwhile was paying his respects to Pauline and the Colonel, who were old acquaintances.
"May, you have never met Mr. Kenwick, I think," said Pauline.
"Oh, yes, I have," May declared; "but it was ages ago and he never would take any notice of me."
"Do let me make up for it now," Kenwick begged, rapidly setting his palette, by way of elucidating his request.
"How long ago is ages ago?" asked Daymond.
"Four years ago last winter," was the unhesitating reply. "It was when I was fifteen and Mr. Kenwick used to come to see my sisters."