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’hôte, 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 have n’t seen her more than once in five or six years, and then only over here. You ’11 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 ; did n’t you think so ? ” asked May, seized, in her turn, with the spirit of investigation. ” He did n’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 Pau-line. ” 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. Sha’ n’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 ; is n’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, any way ? 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 idiosyncracies.
” The gondola ? ” he repeated, doubtfully. ” The gondola is n’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. Ile is going to get it out for us tomorrow, 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 protegè 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 is n’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 fore-most, 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 Colonelperhaps 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 tomorrow, if Vittorio is not able to row ? Of course that is as the Signore wishes. Another gondolier can he had to-morrow for the asking ; but tonight, the prices are appalling. They have no consciences, these men.”
” We ‘ll see how it works tonight. Ah ! there are my nieces. We will meet you a 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 ’11 tell him.”
” How can you tell him, if you don’t know how ? ” May argued. Then, turning abruptly, and glancing up into the dark, intent, forward-looking face, just visible in the uncertain lights of the Canal : ” Has n’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 wont 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 under-tone to the shouts and execrations of ex-cited 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 be-fore their respective occupants could recognize 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 mid-stream. 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 façade 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 splendor. 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 colors 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 foot-step 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 colors 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 façade of San Giorgio, and straightway the poor old moon was consigned to the oblivion it clearly coveted.