( Originally Published 1896 )
A Promotion offers a number of diversions besides that of camping under the colonade, or sitting in the chair of Attila, and May had soon found relief from her momentary discomfiture, in the somewhat arduous exercise of climbing to the top of the cathedral tower, and in readjusting her mistaken notions as to the relative position of the various islands in the northern lagoon. Venice, floating like a dream-city upon the brimming tide, was not at all in the direction in which May had expected to find it ; indeed, so fixed was her idea of its proper where-abouts, that she was within an ace of becoming argumentative on the subject.
Her amusingly irrational attitude gave rise to some lively sparring between her-self and Kenwick, who was at even more pains than usual to monopolize her attention, both then and afterwards.
On their return to sea-level, it was he who pointed out to her each detail of the antique mosaics and other mediæval quaintnesses of the cathedral ; it was he who gave her a rapid sketch of the his-tory of the island,—recently gleaned from guide-books ; —and when, presently, the whole party went for a stroll in a flower-strewn meadow, he took such decided possession of her, that the two were al-lowed to fall back, and discuss at their leisure one and another question of vital interest which he brought forward.
In the intervals of conversation Ken-wick, watching the straggling group in front, found it curiously gratifying to observe that Daymond did not seem to have much to say for himself. Kenwick had not by any means made up his mind to cut Geof out, but the possibility of such a feat gave a new zest to his intercourse with May. He was one of those men who, in their admirations at least, unconsciously take their cue from others. His judgments were not spontaneous, and the value he placed upon any good thing was greatly enhanced by the knowledge that it was an object of desire to other persons. Even in the pursuit of his art, he was governed less by a spirit of praiseworthy emulation than by the sentiment of rivalry.
Having, then, definitely conceived the idea, which had, indeed, been hovering in his mind for some time, that Geoffrey Daymond was seriously interested in May Beverly, the situation had gained a piquancy which Kenwick found extremely seductive. He was far too wedded to his career of " free-lance,"—a title which he took no little pride in appropriating,—to have regarded with equanimity that awkward contingency which goes by the name of consequences, but he was fond of playing with fire, as over self-confident people are apt to be. It must also be admitted that he took a very real pleasure in the bright beauty and alert intellect of the young student of life who carried lier golden head so high and free, and with so individual a grace.
That he could, if he would, gain an influence over this frankly impressionable nature, he did not for a moment doubt. Indeed, he had never doubted his ability to win the interest of any woman, and since he had never been so ill-advised as to put his fortunes to the touch, nothing had yet occurred to disturb his self-confidence.
Today, as he sauntered beside May Beverly in the quiet green meadow, in shadow for the moment, only because a cloud had floated across the sun,—so recently, that the insects had not ceased to hum, and sweet odors still told how herbs and flowers had been steeped in sunshine but a moment since,—he experienced a relish of life such as had only occasionally fallen to his share. And when, presently, the sun came out in full force, inducing the four more taciturn strollers to retrace their steps, Kenwick felt that blaze of light to be doubly inopportune.
A few minutes later the flotilla was again on its way, awnings spread, and flags flying. A breeze had sprung up, and when they were free of the Burano canals, they found the water delicately ruffled. It was the sweetest, gayest little breeze, and in sheer exuberance of shallow emotion, the tiny waves plashed about the prow.
May, who was sailing under the blue banner on this occasion, glanced now and then across the water, at the figure of Nanni, rowing the forward oar. She had not quite her usual vivacity, a fact which did not escape the attention of Kenwick in the other boat, and one upon which he was at liberty to put any interpretation he chose.
The tide was in their favor, and they were making such good speed that the oarsmen petitioned for a detour among the canals of San Erasmus, where are market-gardens and fields and hedges. It was here that Geof had listened to the whistle of the black-bird only the other day, as his boat lay moored to the bank, while he sketched the tiniest of little chapels, nestling modestly in the sparse shade of two dark cypresses. His mind recurred to that peaceful hour, as he chatted in desultory fashion with May, but those quiet musings seemed very far away and unreal in the clear, matter-of-fact atmosphere that that charming young person created about her, even in her quieter moods. To still further deter him from sentimental reminiscences, two small curs rushed forward on the left bank of the tranquil water pathway, barking vigorously, and rousing to an equally noisy demonstration another pair of sentinels on the opposite shore.
As the gondolas went their way, how-ever, without evincing any intention of trespassing ou dry land, the dogs subsided, and in the sudden lull that followed, other senses than that of hearing were quickened. May was just rousing to wonder what it was that smelt so sweet, when Angelo, unable to resist the occasion, turned, and touching his hat, remarked, with laconic eloquence : " Strawberries " ; a suggestion which was not to be resisted.
They moored at a modest landing, in the shadow of an acacia tree, when Geof and Angelo were promptly dispatched upon a foraging expedition, the ambitious stripling, who had so boldly taken the initiative, beaming broadly at the success of his venture. May stepped forward and took her favorite seat on the gondola steps, and, as the other boat came up and tied to theirs, Kenwick was brought face to face with her.
" Strawberries ? " he repeated, in reply to the joyful announcement ; " my life is saved ! " Then, in a low voice : " I have been simply starving ever since we left Torcello," he averred.
" You have ? " May exclaimed, with discouraging literalness. " I suppose it is the breeze, or perhaps the walk in the meadows."
" Yes," Kenwick answered, and there was something so very like sincerity in his tone, that it did convey a dim impression of what was almost a genuine feeling ; " it was the walk in the meadow ! "
May laughed lightly, yet a trifle constrainedly, he pleased himself with fancying. " You shall starve no more," she said, " for here are the strawberries."
The two ambassadors were striding down a rural path, their hands laden with small baskets of diminutive scarlet strawberries. At their heels came three dogs and one cat, acting as van-guard to a woman and a young girl, who carried blue china plates of most æsthetic homeliness. A small and bashful boy was clinging to his mother's skirts, taking, perhaps, his first impressions of the great world.
" Scusi, Signorina ! "
It was Nanni, stepping across Pietro's gondola to get ashore. May looked up and her eyes met those of the gondolier.
" Prego," she answered, and there was a gentle courtesy in her voice, and a kindness in her eyes, that would have been grateful to any man. As Nanni stepped ashore and joined' his brother and old Pietro under the trees, it may be that he blessed her for them. But he had betrayed no pleasure, and once more a sense of the sadness of life stole like a shadow across the young girl's spirit.
To divert her thoughts, and to have an excuse for turning her back on Kenwick, she tried making friends with the bashful bambino, who had seated himself upon the grassy bank and was gazing furtively at her bright silk waist.
Kenwick took the little ruse kindly. He had noticed that she spoke to Nanni in a subdued tone, and he flattered himself that he had the key to her change of mood. He employed himself with handing plates about, while Geof dispensed the strawberries.
It was a pretty and peaceful scene. Kenwick had stepped into Mrs. Daymond's gondola, and was invited to take the seat beside her ; Geof stood on the shore, talking with the men. Uncle Dan and Pauline, sitting side by side, found their attention about equally divided between the toothsome strawberries and the little drama going on between May and the bambino.
May had shared her fruit with the child, and now she was amusing herself with decorating his small, grimy toes with coppers. He was an unsophisticated little beggar, and evidently had no intelligent interest in the cool, round coins, which nevertheless tickled his brown toes agreeably. He looked up and smiled, showing a row of tiny white teeth, and with the movement all the coppers slid off into the grass.
The mother had been watching the little scene, and May had a comfortable assurance that that wealth of soldi would presently be restored to its legitimate function in the scheme of things. She turned from her pretty fooling, and Kenwick promptly remarked : " Are you aware that you have sown the seeds of mendicancy in the soul of that innocent child?"
" Oh, no ; those were nothing but coppers," she retorted brightly, " and I have sown them in the grass."
They had spent half-an-hour at their picnicking, and now a new division of the party was proposed, according to which the four young people should row out a bit toward the Porto, leaving the elders, in Pietro's gondola, to take the more direct way home. And so it came about that presently the Colonel found himself, floating with the Signora down the quiet rio by which they had entered the vignoli. So elderly was the aspect of the gondola with its three gray heads to one black one, that the very dogs refrained from barking, and in the grateful hush, broken only by the dip of the oar, and the not all unmelodious creak of Pietro's heavy boots, the liquid note of the black-bird sounded sweet and clear.
The reflection crossed the Colonel's mind that this was the first time, in all these weeks, that he had been alone with the Signora. He wondered, in a self-distrustful way, what would come of it. It was certainly very sweet to him to have her there beside him, quite to himself. He wondered whether it struck her that it was an intimate, confidential sort of situation. He was sitting a little for-ward, as his habit was, and as he glanced under the awning, at the pretty, rural bit of country that bordered the canal, it was easy to include her face in his survey from time to time.
They chatted for a while of this and that indifferent topic, but it was clear that they were both preoccupied and they soon fell silent. The Colonel, indeed, was nervously sensible that fate was closing in about him, and that he might, at any moment, be betrayed into a false step. For, despite his practical, Yankee common sense, the old soldier was something of a fatalist, and in the one most critical relation of his life, he had always felt himself subject to mysterious and irresistible influences.
Presently, as they came out upon the sparkling waters of the lagoon, the Signora spoke. There was something in her voice that caused the Colonel to turn, at the first word, and as he looked into her face, he pleased himself with noting a new animation, that seemed a direct reflex of the light that played upon the waters. Had he not long ago discovered that mystic kinship ?
" Geof and I are very grateful to you," she was saying, " for bringing those charming girls of yours to Venice."
" You like them ! " he exclaimed. " I knew you would. Nice girls, both of them. It has been a great thing for them, having you here, and Geof. Geof's a capital fellow."
She turned upon her companion a questioning, yet on the whole a pretty confident look. " Colonel Steele," she asked, " should you greatly mind if one of your Pollys should find it in her heart to make my boy happy?"
" What 's that ? " the Colonel cried. " You don't mean ?—Bless my soul, I never thought of such a thing ! "
" It seems the most natural thing in the world to me," she said. " And yet, —supposing your Polly should fail us ! I can't expect Geof to be as irresistible to other people as he is to me." She smiled, as if she were half in jest, yet there was real anxiety in her tone as she asked : " What do you think about it, Colonel Steele ? "
" Why ; I 'm sure I don't know. It 's something of a shock,—that sort of thing always is, you know. Young people do go into it so easily. Of course Geof's a fine fellow. You mean the little one ? "
" Of course," said Mrs. Daymond ; for though Pauline was far from little, she had not the height of her tall young sister.
" Of course, of course. Well, well ! And you want to know what I think about it ? I think she would be a lucky girl. That would make her your daughter, would n't it? Why, of course she'll say yes ! Any girl would be a fool who didn' t, and Polly's no fool. I only wish you had another son for the other one ! "
" I'm afraid she won't take Geof for my sake," Mrs. Daymond said, smiling, half sadly.
" Oh, yes, she will ; I'm sure she will ! " cried the Colonel. " But what I don't understand is—Geof. To be taken with a child like Polly, when,—" He turned sharp about, and looked into her face, and there was no mistaking his meaning. It was almost as if he had spoken the words she had so often heard from his lips.
A great tenderness and compunction swept over the Signora, and found expression in her face. Her beautiful gray eyes met the impassioned trouble of her old friend's gaze, with a gentle directness that in itself went far toward disarming and tranquillizing him.
" I sometimes think," she said, " that perhaps this is what all our—trouble has meant, yours and mine."
There was something indescribably con-soling in the community of sorrow the words seemed to imply. He had never thought before, that his lifelong chagrin had awakened anything more than a momentary regret in her mind, that it had been a sorrow to her, as well.
They were rowing past the cypresses of San Michele, and the Colonel lifted his hat and placed it on his knees, looking straight before him, with the slightest possible working of the muscles of his face. The voice he was listening to was sweet and low, the tender cadence of it seemed to inform the words she used with a spirit not inherent in them.
"I think," she was saying, "that I should be perfectly happy if I could know that the long misunderstanding that has caused us both so much pain, had had a meaning as sweet and acceptable to you as it would be to me."
The Colonel pulled out his pocket-handkerchief and wiped his forehead, surreptitiously including his eyes in the process.
" I 've been a brute," he muttered, in rather a husky voice, scowling savagely into the crown of his hat, which he had lifted from his knees. As if displeased with its appearance, he put it on his head, where he planted it firmly.
She knew that she had all but won the day, and she ventured what she had not ventured before. For it had never been her way to prate of an impossible friendship ; if she used the word she meant to honor it. And today something told her that at last she held control of the situation.
There was nothing in her voice to be-tray the intense exertion of will that she was conscious of making ; on the contrary, her words sounded only wistful and entreating, as she said :
" What friends we should be ! "
And because it was the first time she had made that appeal to him, and because these weeks of pleasant, normal companionship had subtly and surely changed their relation, the Colonel could meet her half-way, like the gallant fellow he was.
" What friends we shall be ! " he cried, clasping the hand which she had involuntarily lifted. " And we won't let it depend upon those youngsters, either ! "
The gondola had entered one of the canals of the city, and presently they passed under a bridge and came out in front of the square of San Paolo and San Giovanni, where the superb statue of Coleoni on his magnificent charger stands clear-cut against the sky.
" Glorious thing, that," the Colonel remarked, as he invariably did, as often as his eye fell upon it.
" Yes," she replied ; " It is the very apotheosis of success. And yet,—one sometimes questions whether a perfectly successful man is as enviable as he seems. What do you think about it, Colonel ? "
"Signora," the Colonel answered, with a flash of feeling in his rugged features that would have done credit to Vittorio's expressive face, " I have had my promotion, and I envy no man "