( Originally Published 1896 )
If Geoffry Daymond had known no more about Nanni than was known to May herself, the little incident which had caused such perturbation in the young girl's mind would not have made any special impression upon him. The scene itself, indeed, might have lingered in his mind as one of those charming surprises that lurk in the enchanted atmosphere of the lagoons. The striking beauty of Nanni's countenance is the possession of many an honest gondolier, nor would the glow of feeling which animated the face, have been anything unprecedented in a man of his class. Old Pietro himself, slumbering at that moment on the floor of his gondola, often exhibited a startling power of facial expression, which fairly transfigured his weather-worn features. No, in a simple gondolier, both beauty of face and brilliancy and depth of expression are quite in the natural order. And if it is not often that one sees these advantages heightened by so admirable a foil as was provided on this occasion, it is simply because such vivid grace of the contrasting type is rare.
Geoffry's first sensation then, as he caught sight of the two figures, was one of gratification to his artistic sense ; and even when May extended her hand, and Nanni, after the custom of the gondolier, raised it to his lips, it did not at once strike the young man as other than natural and fitting. In an instant, however, he recalled the fact, which he had learned of Pietro a month previous, that this was no mere gondolier, but a man of education and consequence in the world ; a circumstance which, undeniably, put a different face upon the matter. It accounted too, perhaps, for the curiously appealing impression of the man's personality. There was undoubtedly something pathetic in this son of a line of gondoliers, reaching back farther than many a titled family, this man with an innate love for the craft, a genuine passion for the lagoons, placed in the artificial environment of modern society, constrained to deal with the hard-and-fast exactions of modern science. No wonder that there was that about him that excited the imagination. Geof had himself felt it ; his mother had spoken of it. Who could know how powerful the appeal might be to one who had not the key to the puzzle ?
When, therefore, Geof came upon the little drama being enacted among the alders at Torcello, with a grace and fervor which was for an instant, but only for an instant captivating, he experienced a feeling of vague dissatisfaction, which was much accentuated by the sight of the young girl's evident emotion, as she turned and faced him unexpectedly.
He did a good deal of pondering in the course of that day and the next, and, as he was quite unable to justify, or even to formulate his anxieties, he wished that he might at least find out whether the truth in regard to the gondolier were known to May. That might throw some light upon the subject.
He was aware, to be sure, of the Colonel's studied secrecy in the matter, but secrets are ticklish things at the best, and no stray hint was likely to have been lost upon a girl of May's intelligence. He had a notion that, if he could get a word with Nanni himself, it would be easy to sound him on the point ; a delusion that was destined to be early dissipated.
On the second morning following the Torcello trip, Geof was swimming in the Adriatic, far out beyond the line of bathers, shouting and splashing in the shallows. There, under a dazzling sky, with a strong wind blowing, and white-caps careering about, he came face to face with the subject of his speculations. The incongruity of catechizing a man of his countenance was instantly apparent.
"Buon giorno, Signore," said Nanni, and Daymond found himself returning the salutation with a courtesy that was little short of deferential. The two men had met upon a common footing,-if the watery deep may be said to furnish one, —and Geof had found himself at a disadvantage.
The incident did not altogether allay his friendly solicitude ; on the contrary, he was abashed and confounded at this evidence of the power of the Italian's personality ; and yet, he was more definitely conscious than he had hitherto been, of a certain racial nobility in the man which commanded confidence.
The wind, that had been a sportive, if somewhat riotous breeze in the morning, gained in force as the day went on. There were few gondolas out in the afternoon, and Geof went about on foot. He walked the length of the wind-swept Riva degli Schiavoni, and then he struck across the city, by narrow alleys and picturesque, out-of-the-way squares, and looked in at certain churches for which the guide-books recommend the after-noon light. Toward the end of the day he found his way back to the Piazza.
The great square was in holiday guise, in honor of some guest of the city. From the three famous flag-staffs in front of San Marco the colors of Italy were floating, rolling and unrolling upon the breeze, in gracefully undulating folds. Men were affixing additional gas jets to the great candelabra, making ready for the evening illumination.
Just as Geof arrived upon the scene, a boy, with a paper of corn in each out-stretched hand, came running down the length of the Piazza, followed by a fluttering swarm of pigeons, hundreds of them on the wing, in hot pursuit of the flying provender. The wings made a sound of multitudinous flapping that was singularly agreeable to the ear. Geof watched their laughing tormenter until he stopped for breath near the base of the campanile, and, in an instant, the pigeons were alighting on his arms and shoulders, and gathering in an eager, gurgling mass about his feet. The corn fell in a golden shower among them, and great was the jostling and gobbling and short was the duration of that golden shower.
Geof turned in at the open door of San Marco, and found his way to one of his favorite haunts, a certain dimly sumptuous side-chapel, where a hint of incense always hovers, and a whispered echo, as of long-past ayes and salves, lingers on the air. Curious carvings are there, and bits of gleaming gold and silver, and, between the pillars, enchanting vistas open out into the transept, or down the mosaic-laid floor of the nave, polished smooth by the feet of generations of worshippers.
As he tarried there, the familiar sense of passive content which he had had of late stole upon him, and he was aware that a certain face and voice were again present with him. Why, he wondered, since it was of other things he had been thinking all day long,—why did that face and voice come to him ? Was it merely a habit of mind, a trick of thought engendered by this idle, aimless Venetian life? Or was it a natural association of pure and lovely impressions ?
And there, in the rich gloom of the great basilica, traced out and accentuated, as it were, by long bars of light that made a golden pathway down from the high western windows, a light entered into his mind, and he knew what his mother had divined long ago.
There was no shock of surprise in the discovery, only a deep, vitalizing satisfaction. It seemed as natural, as inevitable, that he should love Pauline Beverly, as that he should love his life. He knew that he had loved her from the hour of their first meeting ; it seemed to him that he had loved her all his life. He was glad that the realization of it had come to him here in the beautiful church where he had first seen her face. Yet, as he stood looking down the marvellous perspectives of the great sanctuary, only dimly seen in the veiled and brooding light, he felt that the time was past for idle musings, that it behooved him to be-stir himself, to get out into the daylight and begin to live.
He walked down the nave, and out into the gay Piazza, where he was not surprised to find that the aspect of things had changed. The flags were still rising and falling on the breeze, unfolding their radiant colors to the declining sun ; the deep-throated bell of the campanile, which has sounded so many a summons to great deeds, was solemnly tolling the hour ; a Franciscan brother stepped across the pavement, bent doubtless upon an errand of mercy. The young man read a new suggestion in each of these familiar sights and sounds. He turned and looked back at San Marco, at the outline of its clustering domes, at its carvings and mosaics, gleaming in full sunshine. In his exalted frame of mind, all these things seemed translated into large and significant meanings ; patriotism, philanthropy, art,—his own art, architecture. He wondered what fine thing it would be vouchsafed him to do, to win the girl he loved.
Geoffry Daymond was by nature modest ; the accident of worldly prosperity, of personal success, had not changed that ; but he was equally by nature determined. Though he felt that something very tremendous would be required of him before he could enter into his kingdom, he never for an instant doubted that he should win. And so it happened, that, as he walked away across the Piazza, his step rang firmer and sharper than ever, and he held his head with the air of a man not easily daunted.
The wind did not go down with the sun, and, when evening came, Geof felt pretty sure that he should find Pauline in the Piazza. Accordingly, he went there in search of her ; yet when he came upon her, sitting with May and the Colonel at a little round table in front of Florian's, he found very little to say for himself, in response to her friendly greeting. He joined them at their after-dinner coffee, but he said he had had his smoke, and when, presently, May ex-pressed a laudable desire to go and see what the moon was about, he could do, no less than offer to escort her.
" Won't you come, Miss Beverly ? " he asked, but' there was a constraint in his tone, which to Pauline's mind could have but one interpretation.
" Thank you, no ; " she said. " I will keep Uncle Dan company. We have not finished our coffee yet."
As they walked away, Uncle Dan looked after the two comely figures, with a newly acquired intelligence of observation. Presently he coughed, discreetly, and asked, with a great effort at being merely conversational : " Did it ever strike you, Polly, that young Daymond was getting—er—attentive ? "
Pauline, too, had followed them with a look of affectionate good-will, which deepened to a very sweet and wistful smile, as she answered : " Yes, Uncle Dan ; I think he likes May. How could he help it ? "
" Now that 's odd," the Colonel ex-claimed ; " Do you know, I had never thought of such a thing. It was the Signora that put it into my head."
" And you are glad, are you not, Uncle Dan ? You would like to have it happen ? "
" Yes, yes ; of course,—for his mother's sake."
Pauline was still watching May and her companion. They had walked on, easily distinguishable in the crowd by reason of their height, and now they were standing a little apart, near the base of the campanile, in the full light of the illumination. May was talking, her skirts and ribbons fluttering in the breeze. Geof stood beside her listening, his head bent slightly, with a certain chivalry of bearing which was characteristic of him. The wind made no more impression upon his firm, close-reefed figure, than upon the mighty shaft of the great hell-tower.
" I wish it for his own sake, Uncle Dan," Pauline said. " I do not know any one I should be more willing to trust."
" You don't say so ! Well, he 's his mother's son, and that is half the battle."
" Yes," Pauline admitted ; "that is the way I felt too, at first. But now I know him better it is for himself I like him. He is so strong, and steady, and —good evening, Mr. Kenwick."
" Ah, good evening ! I was sure that unless you had blown away in the course of the day, I should find you in these classic precincts. No, thanks ; I 've had my coffee, or something answering remotely to that description. What has become of your sister, Miss Beverly ? She is getting as chary of herself as an Italian pronoun."
" She was here a moment ago," Pau-line replied ; " she has gone with Mr. Daymond to pay her respects to the moon."
" Really," said Kenwick, with a hint of annoyance in his manner, to conceal which he continued talking volubly. " Now I should have thought you would have been the one to go moon-gazing. I should not have associated your sister with the pale and melancholy orb."
"You are very penetrating, Mr. Ken-wick. But I don't think you would find the moon especially pale or melancholy this evening. It seemed in high good humor as we caught a glimpse of it on our way over here."
" Mr. Kenwick's penetration is too subtle for a plain man's comprehension," Uncle Dan observed. The persistency with which the Colonel bemistered Ken-wick was an unmistakable sign of disapproval.
" Colonel Steele, I am guiltless of subtlety," Kenwick declared in his most humorous manner ; " I, too, am a plain man. But, if you will pardon the platitude, we all know that there is one beauty of the sun, and another beauty of the moon, and it would be pure affectation to ignore the fact."
" Apropos of the heavenly bodies,—when is the Urania to sail? " Pauline asked. She feared that Kenwick might go in pursuit of Geof and May, who had disappeared round the corner into the Piazzetta, and knowing that he liked to talk of his millionaire friends and their steam-yacht, she proceeded to draw him out upon the subject.
May and Geof, meanwhile, secure from interruption, thanks to Pauline's little strategy, were strolling in the Piazzetta, now facing the moon-lit, wind-swept lagoon, glittering beyond the pillars in a thousand broken reflections ; now studying the figures of the four porphyry conspirators, engaged in their eternal task of mystification at the corner of San Marco. That all attempts should have failed to settle the character and social standing of those red-complexioned, rather dull-witted gentlemen, who clasped one another in such undecipherable opacity, was almost more than May could bear.
" Don't you think the archeologists are rather stupid to have given up the riddle ? " she asked, as she and her escort turned away and stepped out again into the Piazza.
" I dare say they are," Geof laughed. " but I 'm sure that those flat-nosed fellows are much more entertaining than they would be if they had been labelled. Jove ! What a sight that is ! "
He had suddenly turned and looked up at the front of San Marco, gleaming in the brilliant illumination, like a shrine studded with precious stones. In the concentrated light of hundreds of gas-jets, each exquisite detail, each shining gold mosaic and lavish carving stood out with marvellous distinctness. The golden-winged angels that mount a mystic stairway above the great central arch, the bronze horses prancing so harmlessly over the main portal, even the quaint bas-relief of St. George, sitting, with such unimpeachable dignity, upon his camp-stool,—each and all were far more clearly enunciated than ever they are in the impartial splendor of daylight. Against the darkly luminous, unfathomable sky, the outline of the domes showed clear-cut and harmonious, and over yon-der, above the great Palazzo, whose columns, for that evening at least, were surely carved in ivory and wrought with lace, a remote, half-grown moon looked wonderingly down.
" The moon is rather out of it, to-night," May observed, with the bright crispness that gave everything she said a flavor of originality. She had taken in the beauty of the scene with a completeness that would have astonished her companion ; not a detail had been lost upon her. Yet it was clear that the total effect had not produced an overpowering impression. Geof, for his part, had been really stirred by it, but he had no intention of owning it.
" I don't think we need waste any sympathy on the moon," he replied. "It's usually cock of the walk here in Venice."
Having thus satisfactorily disposed of that subject, the young people turned their steps toward the clock-tower, Geof wondering resignedly, why May made no motion to rejoin her family.
" I don't think I agree with you about mysteries," she said, presently ; " I can't bear them. There 's Nanni, now, the brother of our gondolier," she continued ; and then, turning, and looking her companion full in the face : " Can you make him out ? "
" What is it about him that puzzles you ? " Geof asked, returning her glance with equal frankness.
" I don't know that I can explain it. He seems somehow—different. There is something wrong about him. I don't think he is happy."
" And what if he is not ? " said Geof tentatively. " There need be no mystery about that. I don't suppose many men are really happy."
" You don't ? " May exclaimed, in naïve surprise.
Geof, to whom happiness had come to seem almost incredible, since he had got a glimpse of what it might be, was himself rather taken aback at his own utterance.
" I rather think," he said, laughing uneasily ; " that I only meant that not many people are superlatively happy. As for commonplace, everyday happiness, I suppose that depends upon temperament. Perhaps the man is of a melancholy temperament."
" Perhaps that is it," May answered, thoughtfully ; and with one accord they turned into the quiet paved space north of San Marco, where they stood, a few moments, looking out into the brilliant Piazza.
" I suppose it was very silly of me,"
May went on, laying her hand upon the haunches of a great stone lion that crouches there, polished smooth with the passage of centuries ; " but I had a notion that he was unhappy because he had to live in exile, a mere servant, you know, in a dreadful hospital in Milan. And so I went and offered to give him a gondola, and he would n't accept it. He was thanking me the other day, at Torcello, when you came up. I suppose that was why he was so—melodramatic," and she laughed a little forced laugh, and looked Geoffry straight in the face again.
He saw her embarrassment, and under-stood that she had been setting him right, and that it had cost her an effort to refer to the matter. And so he said the kindest thing possible under the circumstances.
" If you mean his kissing your hand," he replied, with an air of discussing a matter of no consequence, "there's nothing melodramatic in that, at least when a gondolier does it. It is the custom of their class. Old Pietro kisses mine and makes me feel like an ancient doge."
He could see that she was relieved.
" I wonder where the others are," she said. " Let us go and look them up. I did n't feel like anything so fine as a doge," she added, lightly, as they came out into the square again. " I felt like a very interfering and foolish kind of per-son. I don't think I shall do anything so silly again."
" There is nothing silly about a generous action," Geof protested, looking with great kindness at the young girl, to whom the garment of humility was not unbecoming. " I rather think, though, that the man is better off than you imagine. At any rate, I 'm very sure he is better off for the good will you have shown him."
Then, with a return of his previous solicitude, somewhat stimulated by a new realization of the unusual beauty of this experimenter in mysteries, he added
" These Italians are impressionable fellows. They sometimes feel things more than we cold-blooded Northerners appreciate."
" Do they ? " said May, in her most matter-of-fact voice, giving Geof a glance of quick intelligence, and putting herself instantly on the defensive ; " I should have said it was rather touch and go with their feelings. Ah ! There 's Mr. Ken-wick, pretending he doesn't see us ! "