Venice – A Benediction

THE thing that had perplexed. Geoffry Daymond was nothing less inexplicable than the persistence with which the face of Pauline Beverly had come to insinuate itself into his thoughts. When in her society, to be sure, he was not aware of regarding her with an exclusive interest. Indeed it was, more particularly, May who amused and occupied him, as often as Kenwick gave her the chance. The individuality of that surprisingly pretty young person was so sharp-cut and incisive that it fixed attention. It not infrequently happened that everybody present desisted from conversation, merely for the pleasure of a passive contemplation of her mental processes. These were simple, and to the point, and usually played about visible objects. The vital matter with May, in each and every experience, was to formulate a judgment and to compare it with that of other people. If others differed from her, all the better. Opposition is a sharpener of the wits ; and she found Kenwick invaluable in his character of universal sceptic.

No one but Uncle Dan ever really took her down, and that he did so neatly, that she was never seriously disconcerted by it. Had it been otherwise, Uncle Dan would have held his peace, for he prized the exuberance and unconsciousness of her egotism, which he recognized as the all too fleeting prerogative of youth, and he would not, for worlds, have really checked it.

When she informed him that the heroic age was past, and that this was a mercantile era, the old soldier, remembering the ‘6o’s, told her she had better look up era in the dictionary. When she announced, with all the zest of discovery, that Titian could not draw, it was Uncle Dan who observed that he could paint pretty well, which was the main thing.

Yes ; she caught the attention, as the most distinct sound, the most obvious sight is pretty sure to do, when people are taking life easily, and seeking only amusement, and she was so refreshingly unconscious that one could look and listen one’s fill, and no harm done.

Yet Geoffry Daymond discovered that when he was making believe paint pictures, in the first freshness of early morning, or when he was smoking his after-dinner cigar, in the lingering June twilight, the face that interfered with the one occupation and lent charm to the other, was not framed in golden hair, nor animated with the lively and bird-like intelligence which he found so amusing. And not only was it Pauline Beverly’s face, with its softly blending colors, and its quiet, indwelling light, that floated before his mental vision, but he found that he remembered her words, and even the tones of her voice, when the gay, and occasionally witty talk of the others had gone the way of mortal breath. He somehow came to associate certain inflections of her voice with the sweet sounds that make the undertone of Venetian life ; the plash of the oar, the cooing of doves about the Salute, the bells of Murano, softened in the distance, the sound of the surf beating outside the Lido of a still evening, when one floats far out on the lagoon, and the familiar, every-day world seems farther away than those other worlds, shining overhead. He speculated a good deal over this new preoccupation, and more still over the sense of passive content that had come to be associated with it.

For Geof was of an active temperament and possessed of but scant talent for repose. This was his first real vacation in seven years, yet in spite of his good resolve to idle away a month in Venice for his mother’s sake, he had been on the point of finding an outlet for his surplus energies in that tramp in the Cadore, when, just what was it that had deterred him from carrying out the plan ? He believed, at the time, that it was merely the prospect of better acquaintance with the prettiest and brightest girl it had yet been vouchsafed him to meet. As he had since heard May remark,—for having once adopted an opinion, she was fond of testing it in more than one direction,—it is such a comfort to get hold of anything superlative ! He was not aware that the elder sister, who certainly could not claim a single superlative quality, had played any part at all in that first impression ; yet the thought of her had gradually come to be the hourly companion of his solitude. And now, for the first time in his life he found himself luxuriating, not only in solitude, but in idleness.

When he had been making a desultory sketch, away out toward Malamocco, or in among the vignoli in the northern lagoon, pausing perhaps, for a good five minutes, between grassy banks, to listen to the whistle of the black-bird in the hedge, he felt no imperative call to seize an oar and double the rate of speed on the homeward way. On the contrary, he found it a perfectly congenial occupation to lounge among the cushions of the gondola and let Pietro row him home at his own leisurely rate, while the two good comrades had a meditative smoke.

It was because Geof was aware that this state of things was abnormal, that he found it perplexing, and because, much as he enjoyed the experience it-self, he did not relish the sense of having somewhat lost his bearings, that he was glad to seize upon the clue which he had got hold of there at the foot of the stone Madonna. Miss Beverly was like his mother ; that was all there was about it. Such a resemblance as that would make any face linger agreeably in his thoughts.

It had got to be the middle of June, when parish processions are the order of the day. They were rowing up the Grand Canal, one Sunday afternoon, Geof and his mother, on their way to the festa, which was timed for the latter part of the day. Pietro and the gondola were in gala costume, snow-white as to Pietro, and, as to the gondola, the new brussels carpet of dark blue, to match Pietro’s sash and hat-ribbon and the sea-horse banner floating at the bow. As they passed under the Rialto, and swung round the great bend of the Canal, Geof observed, in an unconsciously weighty tone : ” Mother, I have made a discovery.”

“And that is?”

Miss Beverly looks like you.”

At this simple statement of fact, the face of Geof’s listener underwent one of those subtle changes of expression which the Colonel, in an inspired moment, had likened to the play of light upon the waters of the lagoon. For, being gifted with intuition, unhampered by the more laborious processes of the manly intellect, Mrs. Daymond instantly perceived that Geof had confessed more than he was himself aware.

She did not reply at once ; to her, too, appeared the face of Pauline Beverly, as unlike her own, she thought, as well might be, and infinitely more attractive to her for that. Yes, there was only one thing that could possibly make them seem alike to Geof. She glanced at the face beside her, so sound, so vigorous, so magnanimous, as it seemed to her partial eyes. He was gazing straight ahead, with the direct look that his mother liked. He did not seem impatient for an answer ; he had rather the appearance of being pleasantly absorbed in his own thoughts. It had evidently never once occurred to him to consider, in this connection, how often he had declared that he should never lose his heart until he had found a girl who was like his mother.

For a moment she was tempted to remind him of it,—but only for a moment.

For Geof’s mother was not the woman to take unfair advantage of a defence-less position, even where her own son was concerned. So she only said, after an interval of silence that Geof had scarcely noticed : ” I am glad you think us alike, for I have never met a young girl who was as sympathetic to me as Pauline Beverly.”

” Sympathetic ! That ‘s it ; that hits her off exactly I” Geof declared ; and then, with an accession of spirits which rendered him suddenly loquacious, ” And I say, Mother ! ” he exclaimed, ” what a jolly old boy the Colonel is ! I just wish you could have heard him fire up the other day, when Kenwick got off one of his cynicisms at the expense of Abraham Lincoln. Tell you what, the sparks flew ! Oliver was up a tree like a cat ! —Hullo ! There ‘s the flag-ship ! ” he interrupted his flow of words to announce, as they came in sight of San Geremia.

The procession, or the component parts of it, not yet reduced to order, was just issuing from the church ; priests and choristers in their gay vestments, huge candles, flaring bravely in the face of the sun, brilliant banners and gaudy images, all in a confused mass, and the people crowding on the flagged campo before the church. Vittorio’s gondola was disappearing down the broad Canareggio Canal, and Pietro needed no bid-ding to follow after. The crowd of boats of every kind, gondolas, sandolos, barchettas, batteias, and the score of floating things that only your true Venetian knows by name, became so closely packed in the more restricted limits of the Canareggio, that it was impossible for Pietro to get near the sea-horse on the red ground, floating so conspicuous, yet so aggravatingly unapproachable a few rods ahead. He did succeed, however, in forcing a passage after it, and he made his way to the three-arched bridge which spans the Canareggio, and under which he passed to a good point of view. Here they were obliged to tie to a totally uninteresting gondola, with the width of the closely packed canal between their own and the Colonel’s boat. They had been carried somewhat farther along the canal than the others, but Pietro managed to turn his long bark about so that his padroni should face the bridge, which brought Vittorio’s gondola also in their line of vision, and there were friendly wavings of hats and parasols between the two.

Presently the procession drew near, and crossed the bridge, banners waving, candles flaming, priests intoning. The band struck up, and the voices of the priests were drowned in the songs of the choristers.

The quay, on either hand, was crowded with people in gala dress, and from every window, the whole length of the canal, bright flags and stuffs depended, shawls and variegated quilts, table-cloths, and rugs, whatever would take on a festal air in the sunshine. Beautiful silken banners, too, waved from lines that spanned the canal, high above the heads of the floating populace, their painted Saints and Madonnas shot luminously through by the level rays of the sun.

As the procession passed on down the quay, and the high priest drew near, bearing the Host under its embroidered canopy, the throngs on the fondamenta dropped on their knees to catch the scattered blessing, rising again, an instant later, one group after another, which gave to the line of figures an undulating motion, as of a long, sinuous body, coiling and uncoiling.

The pleasure of Vittorio’s passengers was not a little heightened by the proximity of Nanni’s old gondola, which lay only one boat’s width removed from their own, and was filled to over-flowing with the wives and children of his two gondolier brothers. The Signorinas were by this time on terms of intimacy with Vittorio’s family, their chief pet among the children being the smallest boy, always spoken of by his adoring parents as the piccolo Giovanni. ” Pickle Johnny,” Uncle Dan called him, and, being a specialist in names, the Colonel had no sooner invented one for this small and rather obstreperous manikin, than he took him into his particular favor.

The attention of the girls, meanwhile, was pretty evenly divided between the moving show upon the quay and the quite as active contingent in Nanni’s gondola. Indeed there were about as many babies in the one as in the other, for it is a pretty and child-like fancy of the Venetians to dress up their children as saints and angels, and lead them, with a becoming reverence, not all untouched by vanity, in the wake of the holy men. Here were small Franciscans in their brown cowls, tiny St. Johns, clad in sheep-skins and armed with crosses, little queens of heaven in trailing garments of blue tarleton, and toddling white angels, with spangled wings and hair tightly crimped.

As the last of these heavenly apparitions disappeared down a dark alley, ” Pickle Johnny ” set up a howl of disappointment, which his mother tried in vain to suppress. In vain did his father scowl upon him over the heads of his passengers in a semblance of terrible wrath, in vain did his uncle produce a row-lock for his delectation ; ” Pickle Johnny ” mourned the loss of the last baby angel and would not be comforted.

May was looking on with an amusement that was not without relish, when, chancing to glance at the harrassed face of Nanni, the most conspicuous victim of ” Pickle Johnny’s ” ill-judged exhibition of feeling, she experienced a sudden change of mood, and came instantly to the rescue.

” Let me take the bambino,” she begged. ” I can make him good.”

The mother, a stout, comely woman in a plain black gown, demurred decorously, but was glad enough to yield, and Nanni, taking the child in his arms, stepped across the intervening gondola, to which his own was tied, and deposited his wondering burden in the arms of the Signorina who stood up to receive it. As he did so, that flash of grateful recognition which he was so chary of, crossed his grave face. Then, before ” Pickle Johnny ” could decide upon any definite line of action, the Signorina made haste to divert his mind by surrendering to him the cluster of silver trinkets which dangled from her belt. Pencil and pen-knife, scent-bottle, glove-buttoner, and, best of all, a tiny mirror, in which he viewed his still tearful countenance with undisguised satisfaction.

Uncle Dan looked on indulgently, and Pietro’s passengers, over the way, found the scene worthy of attention, as did others of the floating audience. The golden head, bent over the swarthy little cherub, was a sight that would have attracted Oliver Kenwick’s notice, for example, even if he had had no personal interest in the chief actor. He was with some New York friends, in a gondola three or four boat-lengths away, and so absorbed was he in the little drama, that, when a remark was addressed to him that called for a retort, his gift of repartee quite failed him.

Presently the sound of wind instruments again made itself heard, and again the procession emerged from the narrow by-ways where the blessing had been plentifully strewn, and moved up the quay toward the three-arched bridge. By this time the poor little saints and angels were pretty tired and draggled. The small St. John, in a very bad temper, was banging about him with his cross, while the queen of heaven, reduced to tears of anguished fatigue, had been picked up in the strong arms of her father, where she was on the point of dropping asleep. ” Pickle Johnny,” too, was getting fretful again, having exhausted the charms of scent-bottle and toy looking-glass, and May was beginning to repent of her bargain.

” Give him to me,” said Pauline. ” He is sleepy, poor little tot ! ”

She took him in her arms, and in thirty seconds the little tot was fast asleep. Oliver Kenwick became once more available for social purposes. There was nothing picturesque, nothing effective about this ; it would not have attracted attention any more than the sight of a young mother, holding her sleeping child.

The gondola lay with its stern toward the bridge, which the ‘ procession was crossing, and Pauline sat facing the open lagoon, where the sunset light already showed warm and mellow. She turned a bit in her seat, to see the bright banners and the candle-flames cross the bridge, and presently the high priest with his attendants had paused upon the central arch. At the stroke of a bell the Host was lifted, and all the populace fell upon their knees. Vittorio, in his snowy costume, knelt at the stern of his boat, Nanni, darkly clad, inclined his head and bent his knee, while the little children in his gondola dropped like a flock of doves upon the floor, where they huddled together, heads down, and eyes peering out. Old fisher-men in their blue blouses, aged women, stiff and slow, managed somehow to get upon their knees. The Colonel stood, hat in hand, facing the bridge, while May glanced, with bright interest, from one picturesque figure to another, noting the fact, in passing, that Geoffry Daymond’s hat was lifted, and Oliver Kenwick’s was not.

Pauline sat with her head bent over the sleeping child. At the sound of the third bell, which was the signal for all that multitude to cross themselves and rise to their feet, she lifted the chubby hand, and made the sign of the cross with it upon the little breast. She did it as simply and naturally as if she had been the best Catholic of them all.

A moment later, ” Pickle Johnny,” with the blessing upon his drowsy little person, had been handed back to his uncle, and Vittorio was skillfully making his way out among the thronging craft toward the lagoon, which was swimming in a golden mist.

Pietro rowed in the other direction, and there was a friendly exchange of greetings between the passing gondolas.

“Did you see that?” Geoffry asked, as they came out upon the broad bosom of the Grand Canal.

” Yes ; I saw it, Geof, his mother answered ; ” I feel as if we had all received the benediction.”