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 rail-way 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 labor, 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, out-spoken note of color 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 corning 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 bygone 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 does n’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 waterway. Here and there, above the dark current, a bit of color 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 color 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 did n’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 today, 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 vigor, 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 ! “