( Originally Published 1896 )
FOR all the questionings and probings which May Beverly applied to the successive phenomena of the world about her, she had passed her twenty years as light of heart and as free of real perplexities as any fifteenth-century maiden in her turret chamber. Prosperous and sheltered as her youth had been, she had, up to this time, apprehended scarcely anything of the real drama of life.
Whether it was due to a seasonable and inevitable development, or to a quickening of the imagination caused by the potent loveliness of Venice, it was certainly true that the young girl was passing through a new and curiously stimulating experience. Many things had been revealed to her of late, which as yet she only half comprehended ; for whereas she had formerly had an eye only for details, she was now beginning to combine and interpret ; and having hitherto been chiefly occupied with the surface, she was learning to divine, if not to penetrate, the depths. It was doubtless due to this general rousing of the imagination, to which she perhaps owed her unalterable conviction that Vittorio's brother had, in some mysterious way, been singled out by misfortune, that the thought of him had come to play so large a part in her consciousness.
It was quite true, as she declared, that neither she nor Pauline had ever succeeded in attaining to the easy and spontaneous footing with him which had been established with Vittorio from the very first. Vittorio was both gay and communicative, and none the less a perfect servant for that. He would row by the hour, without volunteering a remark, yet a friendly word never failed to elicit the flashing smile and ready response which conferred such grace upon him. A little diplomacy on the part of the girls had effected an entrance to his house, and to his confidence. They knew that he had married his Ninetta without a dowry because " she pleased him," and that their eldest child had died of a fever ; that Constanza was the scholar of the family, and Giulia the caretaker. They knew that the eldest boy was named for one of his grandfathers, and the second for the other ; that the third boy, Vittorio, wanted to be a soldier, and that the piccolo Giovanni was going to be the best gondolier of them all. They knew why a light was always burning, day and night, before the little image of the Ma-donna on the stairs, and why the whole family had made a pious pilgrimage to the church of San Antonio at Padua the previous year. They knew how severe the father of Vittorio and Nanni had been to his boys ; how he had, on more than one occasion, pitched them over-board, straight into the canal, yet how he was, nevertheless, " a just man "
They were acquainted with 'Vittorio's harmlessly revolutionary views, and with his reasons for not voting. They were familiar with his simple creed, to hope all things and leave the rest to the Madonna. And of Nanni's experiences and beliefs they knew nothing.
During the week when he had served them as gondolier he had never volunteered a remark. and he had given only the shortest possible answers when addressed. Yet upon the mind of May, at least, his personality had made a strong impression. His tall, poorly clad figure, swaying at the oar, his sombre, almost tragic gaze, fixed straight before him, his deep, grave voice, not more musical, but more perfectly modulated than his brother's,—all went to form an enigma and an appeal.
Since his release from their service they had met him several times, rowing quite by himself in his shabby old gondola. Once they had come upon him out by St. George in the Seaweed where the loveliest of all the parasol Madonnas keeps guard over the still lagoon. He could have had no prosaic errand there. Was it because he loved the beauty of the scene, the grace and poetry of the dear young mother with the child, keeping their watch of centuries, above the old red wall where the lizards sun them-selves ? Or had he gone there to say an ave, as the pretty Catholic custom is ?
Another time they had encountered Nanni's boat when they were rowing out towards San Clemente in the starlight. There were stars in the water as in the sky, and the city was hidden behind the Giudecca, but the great campanile, showing pale and mysterious in the lights of the Piazza, sent its white shaft far down into the water of the lagoon on the hither side of the dark Giudecca. As the shadowy gondola, with its tiny light, came stealing over the star-strewn water, May recognized the solitary oarsman. Some-thing withheld her from commenting on the fact, and when, a few seconds later, Vittorio exclaimed, " Ecco, miofratello l " Uncle Dan had remarked what quick eyes these fellows have, and that nobody else could have recognized a man in the dark, like that. And May had said nothing, and the fact that she had kept silence gave her a curious pang of unwilling self-consciousness. So she began talking very fast of the Bellini Madonnas in the church of the Redentore, whose great dome towered black against the hovering reflection of the city lights, and of how they were not Bellinis after all, and since experts could make such bad blunders, whom were you to trust ?
They had had no intercourse with Nanni since the day they had rowed out to the Porto del Lido, and May had protested against the ocean swell. She often thought of the sensation it had caused in her, and a curious longing had come over her to feel once more that strange, disconcerting thrill.
She wondered whether she should ever have a chance to speak to Nanni and make him the offer of a gondola ; she wondered if his face would flash with pleasure and gratitude. Would he tell her why he had chosen exile from the life and occupation he loved so well ? Would he tell her something about himself, give her the key to his strange melancholy and reserve? She had very little hope of such a consummation, but she was determined to make the attempt at the first opportunity.
And a few days after the Procession at the Canareggio, when he had so grate-fully handed " Pickle Johnny " over to her care, the opportunity presented itself. For on that day the red and blue banners made the long-anticipated trip to Torcello, that ancient cradle of Venice that rocks on the bosom of the lagoon, miles away to the northward. An extra oar was requisite for each gondola, and Nanni was drafted for the occasion. Old Pietro brought with him a slender slip of a grandson, a boy of sixteen, Angelo by name, who made up in skill and elasticity for the robustness yet to come.
Kenwick was of the party, and in great spirits ; but indeed there was not one of them all who was not sensible of that agreeable exhilaration which attends a propitious start. The morning was true Venetian, soft and fair as a dream. Sweet scents were wafted over the water, and no one thought to question whence they came. The men pulled with a will, for it was a long trip, and all too soon they found themselves thridding their way through low banked water-ways to the landing near the quaint old church of Santa Posca, their coming hailed with joy by a rapidly recruited army of raga-muffins. Immediately upon landing Vittorio and Angelo were despatched to a neighboring cottage in search of chairs and table, and presently the party were established at their luncheon under the beautiful colonnade of the Cathedral.
The ragamuffins, encouraged by a very ill-advised distribution of coppers which had taken place at their first onslaught, were collecting about the table with clamorous entreaties for 1' ultimo. Uncle Dan had begun it by his inability to resist the supplicating eyes of a beatific midget who chewed the hem of her frock with the whitest of little teeth. Kenwick, taking his cue from the Colonel, had mischievously carried out the principle, by presenting a soldo to each one of the assembly having the slightest pretence to comeliness. Upon which the two Pollys, unable to tolerate such cruel discrimination, had offered prompt reparation to the feelings of the ugly ones. The consequence was, that Vittorio and Angelo passed a lively half-hour in the role of sheep-dogs, keeping the small and ravening wolves at bay while the meal was going forward, dodging about after them among the pillars of the colonade, and conjuring them, with awful threats, to keep their distance, or else they should receive niente, nie nte !
Happily the supply of food was double the legitimate demand, and while the gondoliers returned the table and chairs the two young men amused themselves and the rest of the company, by feeding the little beggars. It was an engrossing sport for all concerned, and May, seeing her opportunity, slipped away to the landing.
She found the two gondolas moored a few rods down the rio, lying close to the shore in the shadow of the alder bushes that leaned sociably over the bank. Pietro was lying flat on the floor of his boat, fast asleep ; Nanni, whose gondola was the first she came to, was sitting in the bow with a book in his hand, which he slipped into his pocket at the approach of the Signorina. His hat was lying on the floor, and the flickering shadows of the leaves on his face and figure made a peaceful impression of summer and happy ease.
" Oh, Nanni ; would you please hand me my sketch book ? " May asked, as she came up, and stood on the bank above him. He was already on his feet, and he stooped for the book, which he handed to her with his curiously inexpressive manner.
The young girl hesitated a moment, half abashed by the stillness and the solitude and the stately deference of this man whose life she was so desirous of influencing. But she had too much spirit to retreat, and as Nanni stood before her, grave and respectful, she said, in her carefully correct, curiously unidiomatic Italian : " Nanni, I am not content to have you go back to Milan. You were born to be a gondolier. It cannot be that you do anything else as well, or that you like any other life, really. Wait," she commanded, as he seemed about to inter-pose. " You must let me finish. I want, —I want—" and a sudden confusion seized her ; " I want to make you a present of a gondola."
She paused and looked down upon him, with earnest, supplicating eyes. She did so dearly long to gain her point ; she was so sure, so touchingly sure that she knew best,—and then, the face before her,—what was it that it said ? There was no grateful flash, only an increased dignity and reserve.
" Signorina," he said, very gently, with a high-bred restraint of manner that impressed her strangely, and increased her confusion, adding to it, indeed, a sense of insufficiency and incompetence that she had never before experienced : " Signorina,—you mistake me and my life. I am not at liberty to say what would surely set your mind at rest, but,—I have no wish to change my life, and, —I cannot accept your gift."
She had thought to press the matter, to represent to him his own short-sightedness, his misapprehension of his own best good ; but she found it impossible to urge her case. She felt herself confronted with a will so much stronger than her own that she had not a word to say. She only murmured : " I am very sorry about it," and was turning dejectedly away, when Nanni's voice arrested her.
" Signorina," he cried, " Signorina, will you not forgive me ? "
She turned, and there was a look of entreaty, a touch of real emotion in his face which startled her.
" Why, Nanni," she said ; " there is nothing to forgive. You know best." She had not often said those three words in the easy self-confidence of her youth. " You know best," she said. " It is I who should beg pardon for thinking I knew."
She held out her hand to him, as naturally as she would have done to Geoffry Daymond, and Nanni, stooping, lifted it to his lips.
The child did not know that it was the universal custom of his class ; that there was nothing else to be done when a gentlewoman extended her hand to a gondolier. She only knew it was the first time in her life that such a thing had happened to her, and she turned away in much perturbation.
She found herself face to face with Geoffry Daymond, who was coming along the bank in search of her.
" Ah, here you are," he cried gaily. " We thought we might have made a mistake and fed you to the populace ! The little brutes have eaten every edible crumb we had, and seemed to want to try their appetites on the table-cloth. Now we are all going up the tower of the cathedral to have a look at things."
She wondered whether Daymond had seen that strange and rather dreadful thing that had happened. Had she known him better, she would have been sure that his burst of eloquence could have but one interpretation. He had seen and wondered ; two facts which must be suppressed.
As May and Geof came up the path, Ken wick, who was sitting in the stone chair which is accredited to the ancient Attila, observed the look of slowly subsiding emotion in the young girl's face, and a sudden pang seized him, whether of friendly concern or of selfish annoyance, he would have been the last to in-quire. That they should have passed him by, in his picturesque situation, without a word, thus cutting him off from the delivery of a witticism which he had concocted for their edification, was certainly a grievance, and as he rose to his feet, unregarded, and followed after, it is perhaps not to be wondered at, if the thought crossed his mind, that it might be worth while to cut Geof out.