Venice – A Summer’s Day

MAY had been quite correct in her surmise that Kenwick was shamming, though this was merely based on general theories. Not only did he see her as she emerged with Geoffry Daymond from the comparative obscurity of the stone lion’s neighborhood, but he had been for some moments furtively watching them both, himself lost to view in the crowd about the bandstand. She would have been surprised indeed if she could have guessed the effect upon the sprightly cavalier of this new evidence of the confidential relations existing between herself and his friend ; and indeed, when a moment later he met them, with a facetious sally, it is doubtful whether anything short of clairvoyance could have divined his true state of mind.

For Oliver Kenwick was experiencing something as closely resembling genuine feeling as was like to befall him in the course of his discreetly regulated career. He had played with fire once too often, and he had discovered, not without a slight accession of self-respect, that he was perceptibly scorched. He had supposed his interest in May Beverly to be purely impersonal ; he had been mistaken. He had admired her in his character of connoisseur, as a man of the world he had found amusement and relaxation in her society. For May had the unique advantage of combining that degree of conventionality which is admissibly essential, with a refreshing lack of conventionality in non-essentials. She had repeatedly surprised and stimulated him, she had never yet offended his taste. And Kenwick was nothing if not fastidious. Her attraction had been undeniably heightened by his imagined discovery of Geoffry Daymond’s interest in her ; but quite independently of that artificial stimulous, she did exercise a strong fascination over him.

It was not in Oliver Kenwick’s scheme of life to sacrifice his independence to any claim, even to that of his own un-chastened fancies. He would not have known himself in any other role than that of free-lance, and life would indeed have lost its savor if he had been betrayed into the purchase of an indulgence of feeling at the cost of his self-approval. He possessed an ideal of himself which he prized and guarded ; if the ideal was a questionable one, judged by ordinary standards, he was at least consistent in its cultivation. If, impelled by a spirit of rivalry, if, goaded to something approaching rashness by the contemplation of Geof’s quiet, masterful way of taking possession of the things he coveted, he resolved to retaliate where retaliation was peculiarly palatable, this indicated no change whatever in his ultimate intentions.

For a day or two after the little episode of the stone lion Kenwick succeeded in cutting Geof out, as he termed it, very neatly, by the simple device of interesting May in a certain sketch which she undertook at his suggestion. The subject was a common enough one in Venice ; a tranquil rio between ruinous walls, —here a bit of quaint mediæval sculpture,—there a splash of verdure over the arch of a gateway,—a pointed church-tower in remote perspective. The clever craftsman found no difficulty in inventing reasons why a similiar combination of advantages was not to be found else-where. In his own mind he was perfectly well aware that he chose it because the proper point of view was only to be obtained by disembarking and planting the easels on a bit of quay that stopped abruptly in front of a deserted house. Here, in this isolated position, the two painted together for three successive afternoons, and Kenwick, by dint of a judicious combination of encouragement and criticism, which he, as a practiced artist had always at command, succeeded in arousing in the young girl an enthusiasm for the work, and an appreciation of his own mastery of his craft, which could not but be gratifying and stimulating to him. In truth she had never liked him so well, and, having on her part nothing to conceal, she was as outspoken in her gratitude as in all things else.

At the end of the third afternoon May had completed the best sketch she had ever done. Just as she was putting the finishing stroke to it, a gondola went gliding by, an old and shabby one, and in the tall figure at the stern she recognized Nanni. An indefinable shadow crept over the bright elation of a moment previous, and she stopped painting.

“That old tub of your Nanni’s is about ready for the crematory,” Ken-wick observed, as he too began putting up his traps.

” The crematory ? ” she repeated, absently.

” Yes ; when they are fairly on their last legs the gondolas are burnt in the glass-factories.”

May watched the water-logged craft as it vanished under a distant bridge.

” I like that idea about the gondolas,” she remarked, a few minutes later, as Pauline and Uncle Dan, who had been taking a turn in the Giudecca, came to pick them up. ” The poor old things must be glad to breathe their dying breath into those exquisite flasks and vases.”

” What ‘s that about dying breaths ? ” Uncle Dan demanded, as he handed his niece into the gondola. ” Yes ; it is a happy fate to die in a good cause,” he admitted, when the matter was explained to him,—and he wondered whether it could possibly be Kenwick who had put the child in a sentimental mood.

” But a happier fate to serve a good cause and live,” Kenwick maintained ; adding, lightly: ” Miss May tells me I have taught her something, and I desire to live long to remember it.”

” You probably will,” the Colonel rejoined, curtly.

” You were wishing the other day for a short life and a merry one,” Pauline observed, as the Colonel turned to speak to Vittorio.

” Perhaps things have changed since then,” Kenwick replied, in a low voice, with so much seriousness and significance that May gave him a quick, amused look, while Pauline experienced an unreason-able resentment. What business had a stranger like Kenwick to be talking to them in riddles?

And yet, the next day, when the whole party took the trip by steamer, the long length of the lagoon to Chioggia, Pauline was shocked to find herself almost re-signed to the pretensions of the stranger as exhibited toward May.

The morning was a glorious one, cooler and clearer than the usual Venice June. Across the lagoon to the west, the Euganean hills stood out, sharp-cut in their pointed outlines as if carved in stone,—as indeed they doubtless are,—while to the northward, looking back across the domes and spires of the receding city, could be seen the distant snow-capped range of the Tyrolese Alps, so gracious in its undulating curves, as to make an impression almost of warmth and tenderness.

From the start, Kenwick had succeeded in engaging May’s attention, having re-sort to the same means which had already proved efficacious. At his suggestion they had each brought a sketch book, and, during the trip of several hours, they jotted down desultory notes of the passing scene. Here a boat laden with market produce, its gay, striped sail bulging to the breeze ; there, the towers of Malamocco and Poveglia, with the pretty vista of the channel between. Again a rude shrine, erected on piles, or a group of boys diving off a tumble-down wharf in the distance. It was very delightful, this monopoly of the young girl’s attention. The eager interest with which she listened to his suggestions, the quick intelligence with which she acted upon them.

And Pauline, sitting with Geof a little apart from the others, tried in vain to take herself to task for leaving Kenwick so entirely to his own devices. She sup-posed she understood her sister too well to have any anxiety on her account. The ready interest of May’s manner was precisely of the same sort as that with which she had listened to Nanni’s instructions in rowing, or to Vittorio’s lessons in the Italian tongue. Pauline remembered how, only the other day, Vittorio had made mention of a piccola bestia with whose name they were not familiar, and she smiled, as she recalled May’s triumph when, at last, after a labored description of its leading characteristics, it had dawned upon her that the small beast with a smooth coat, a pointed nose, a long tail, and—yes, that told the story !—four legs, was a mouse !

Nevertheless, though her conscience was easy with regard to her sister, Pauline told herself, severely, that Geof was being very hardly used, and that she, by her supineness, was as much to blame as Kenwick for the artist’s unwarrantable behavior. To be sure, Geof betrayed no dissatisfaction with the existing arrangement ; he was far too well-bred for that,—and really, how fine he was, in this as in everything ! One would have thought that he was deeply interested in telling her about the great sea-wall in which nature and man have gone into partnership, and upon the preservation of which depends the very existence of Venice. There it stretched for miles, the long, narrow strip of sand and masonry, and as the steamer plied the waters of the la-goon, hour after hour, in the bright June morning, they could hear the tread of the breakers on the beach outside, and realize something of the mighty forces that must be resisted in time of winter storms.

” That thing almost made an engineer of me,” Geof observed.

” I don’t wonder,” said Pauline, with ready comprehension ; ” it appeals to one immensely,” and Geof knew that she was in sympathy with him, that not a word he had said, not a word he had left unsaid, had been lost upon her.

” When I am particularly out of conceit with myself,” he continued,—and he liked to remember that there was no one else to whom he would have talked in this strain,—” I get to thinking that perhaps it was a mistake not to stick to that first notion. It’s a fine thing to work for defence.”

” Yes,” said Pauline, after the little pause he knew so well, and which he had learned not to break in upon,—” but, —isn’ t it better still to build for shelter ? ”

The thoughtful words, fraught with so much delicate meaning, touched him with a sense as of home and of sweet human happiness ; the friendly eyes, turned questioningly to his, thrilled him with a yet deeper feeling. A look came into his face which had surely never been seen there before, but he only said, in his deep, honest voice : ” You have given a new grace to my bricks and mortar.”

Then Pauline, usually so modest and so self-contained, was conscious of a reprehensible feeling of exultation, and, by a singular association of ideas, she found herself constrained to remember what Uncle Dan had said to her the other evening. She glanced at him, chatting, in pleasant good-fellowship, with the Signora, and she was glad to think that they too were to be made happy by this beautiful and wonderful thing which all agreed was in the air. And at this point in her meditations Pauline became possessed of such an irresistible, and certainly most illogical desire to give a :little sob, that she rose abruptly to her feet, and went to look at her sister’s sketches.

They were nearing the end of their voyage, and, a few minutes later, they had made the landing, and were strolling through the ancient town in search of luncheon. They found a little inn at the edge of the water, where they partook of omelette and native wine, served in a pretty loggia ; after which they sauntered about the place, purchasing a piece of lace of one and another picturesque old hag, and picking up some quaint bits of pottery in a dingy shop under the arcades. Later, having done their duty by the sights, they chartered a big boat, propelled by two strapping oarsmen and a couple of very splendid sails, and voyaged peace-fully down a sleepy canal, and out across a bit of quiet lagoon to the strip of beach known as Sotto Marina. There, on the shore, they came upon a solitary child in a red petticoat, with a small purple shawl crossed over her funny little person. She was apparently absorbed in watching the tiny wavelets at her feet, scarcely bestowing a glance upon the numberless brilliant sails, scattered like a field of Roman anemones upon the deep green of the sea.

As the strangers descended upon her, the little recluse payed them the tribute of a fascinated stare, and they, in return, did their best to instill into her mind the belief that they were creatures of another and a brighter sphere. Uncle Dan presented her with a peppermint lozenge, Mrs. Daymond held her broad, lace-trimmed parasol over the small black head, while May gave her a glimpse of the world through each end of her opera-glass. The child was a self-contained little person, and betrayed no special elation over these blandishments. When the time for parting came, Kenwick, with much ceremony, presented her with a bright piece of nickle, as a ricordo of the visit. She was something of a beauty, in her small childish way, and he petitioned for a kiss in return. This the little maid politely but firmly refused ; her favors were evidently not for sale.

” If you won’t give me one,” he said, trying not to look abashed at the rebuff, ” go and kiss the lady you love best.”

They were all standing about in the bright sunshine, deriving no little entertainment from Kenwick’s discomfiture. The child took the proposition very seriously ; but, after a moment’s deliberation, she walked straight up to Pauline and lifted a small, pursed-up mouth to her.

” If that ‘s not just Pauline’s luck ! ” May exclaimed, as her sister stooped to receive the proffered salutation. ” And she is the only one of us all who hasn’t paid the little wretch the slightest attention ! ”

” Oh, yes, she has,” Geof protested, in perfect good faith. ” She has been smiling at her ! ” Upon which every-body laughed, and no one more heartily than Geof, at the way his remark had turned out.

Kenwick’s merriment, however, was not quite sincere. A vague mistrust had crept over him and was working within him, subtly and surely, as the afternoon wore on. Had he been mistaken about Geof? The thought was too distasteful to be seriously entertained, and he rejected it summarily. Yet it had not been without effect. His vanity had taken alarm, and the instinct of self-preservation was roused in his mind.

Yes, he thought to himself, half-an-hour later, as they sailed before a light wind under the gay Chioggia canvas, out toward the open sea,—yes, he had been venturing upon deep waters, and it was time to come about. It was, of course, sheer nonsense to suppose that Geof s taking May’s defection so easily was an indication of any real indifference on his part. He was only too plaguey sure of himself to feel any anxiety. Geof had always had an irritating way of taking things for granted but, when it came to the point, no one with eyes in his head could be really indifferent to that superb young creature. Kenwick glanced at the slender figure perched at the extreme prow of the boat, and straightway he experienced an awkward wrench somewhere in the neighborhood of that organ to which is attributed so large a share in our emotional embarrassments. And it was at this juncture that Kenwick had recourse to a curious befooling of himself in which long practice had made him an adept.

A sail was just ‘passing, a deep red one, bearing the design of globe and cross in crude outline of uncompromising black. As he regarded, absently, that primitive religious symbol, there awoke within him a certain phantom conscience, which was wont to play an effective part in his elaborate process of self-mystification. To-day this facile monitor hinted that if Geof did feel so sure of himself, it would hardly be the part of a friend to press his own advantage too far. Geof was a good fellow ; he really had a great opinion of Oliver Kenwick’s talent, and did not hesitate to say so on occasion. It would never do to play him any unhandsome tricks. The more unsuspicious he was, the more it behooved Kenwick to guard his interests. Yes ; he would withdraw in Geof’s favor, he would be hanged if he wouldn’t !

And so it came about that by the time they were returning northward again in the Venice steamer, Kenwick had worked himself up to a really lofty pitch of self-sacrifice. He would go off in the Stickneys’ yacht with them tomorrow, by Jove he would ! Luckily for him, he had left the invitation open, not from any intention of accepting it, but simply be-cause he had never in his life burnt a bridge. A good principle that ; he would always stick to it.

As the lovely sunset light grew and deepened, Venice came up like a vision out of the sea. The cloudless sky was tinged with yellow, and the water rip-pled in moulten gold up to the very side of the boat. He turned to May, who chanced to be standing beside him, looking, with level gaze, straight into the serene heart of the sky. She had certainly a softer, gentler look than she used to wear. Would it deepen as be spoke ?

” This is a charming ending to my visit here,” he said, quietly.

” Ending ? ” May exclaimed, turning upon, him that bright, straightforward look with which she met every statement of fact. ” Ending ? Why, you are not going away ? ”

“Yes; I am off with the Stickneys early tomorrow morning.”

“In the Urania? You are in luck ! But why didn’t you tell us before ? ”

” I could n’t bear to speak of it,” he averred, and at the moment he almost believed he was speaking the truth. ” It costs me too much to go away.”

” Well, I don’t wonder,” May declared ; ” there ‘s nothing like Venice. Still, you live abroad half the time, and can come here whenever you please.”

” Ah, Miss May ! ” he exclaimed, and this time he was absolutely sincere. “Venice will never be the same to me again.”

She could not altogether misunderstand his meaning, but it was impossible to take him very seriously, and, prompted by a not too lively curiosity, she asked : ” Then why do you go? ”

” Because it would be wrong for me to stay,” he replied, with a subdued, almost convincing emphasis.

” Then of course you must go,” she returned, with the youthful decision that rarely failed her; adding, consolingly, as her eyes wandered back to the sunset : ” And I’ve no doubt you will enjoy the Urania quite as much as Venice.”