( Originally Published 1896 )
MAY BEVERLY was not given to the study of her own countenance. She knew, of course, that it was a creditable production of Nature, that she had good features and pretty coloring and that her fellow-creatures, as a rule, seemed to like her looks. Beauty had not stolen upon her at unawares as the case is with so many young girls. She had always been pretty, with the unquestioned, outspoken prettiness of a graceful animal or a bright-hued flower. She took it for granted, as she did those other gifts, of health and youth, and, on the whole, she gave it very little thought.
It was therefore the more remarkable that she should have just been spending a good half-hour before the looking-glass. She had the room to herself this afternoon, for Pauline had gone again to Tor-cello, this time with a party of old friends who had recently made their appearance in Venice, and whose claims upon her sister May was somewhat inclined to question. Today, however, their exactions fell in most opportunely with a certain plan of her own, which had come to her in the shape of a great inspiration. The Torcello party had started directly after luncheon and were to return by moonlight, and, Pauline being thus satisfactorily disposed of, there remained but one lion in the path, in the person, namely, of Uncle Dan.
As May stood before the dressing-table, upon which were billows of bright silk handkerchiefs, each of which had in turn suffered rejection at her hands, she was arranging a large fichu of Spanish lace upon her head in such fashion as to completely cover her pretty hair. She tilted her head first at one angle and then at another, scowling fiercely in her effort to decide how great a change had been wrought in her appearance. Whether owing to the presence of the scowl, or to the absence of the yellow top-knot, the countenance certainly had a very unfamiliar look, and, well pleased with the effect, she turned away and stepped out upon the balcony.
The day was very warm, not a breath of air found its way under the broad, striped awning that cast its grateful shadow upon the balcony ; the very water gleamed hot and desert, and the cooing of the Salute doves had the gurgling, simmering sound of a great tea-kettle. May leaned her arms upon the cushions of the stone balustrade and looked down and off toward San Giorgio. How beautiful it was, even at high noon, and how glorious it would be to-night, when the full moon came sailing up into the twilight sky, and the cool, sweet breath of evening was wafted over the waters ! What an evening it would be ! One to remember all her life, all that long, everyday kind of life that stretched so unendingly on into the future.
They had gone that morning, she and Pauline, to carry the roses to the Signora Canti. They had found the poor singer weak and ill and disheartened. The doctor had told her she must not sing for some days yet,—surely not this evening, —and to-night was full moon, when the tourists throng the Grand Canal, and be-fore another full moon should come the heat would have driven the pleasure-seekers away. " They fear the heat, the forestieri ! "
There was no one to take her place, the woman said. Just the chorus singing would attract but few listeners ; the other serenaders would get all the people. This was the harvest time and it must be wasted. Ah ! The roses were mollo belle, bellissime, Signorina,—but it was clear that they offered little consolation for real troubles.
And, sitting there in the tiny room where the shutters were close drawn against the morning sun,—which nevertheless pierced through a crack and lit up, with one straight beam, the pitiful, drawn face of the poor cantatrice, her great inspiration came to May. She had a voice and she could sing. Why should she not sing for this poor woman, sing in the moonlight and gather the gondolas about her? Oh, there would be no lack of a soul in her singing, out there in the moonlight. Signor Firenzo would not have lectured and entreated her in vain. She knew now what he meant. She had been longing to sing, many an evening on the starlit lagoons and she had not dared.
A group of little children had come into their mother's room, and were huddling shyly in a corner, gazing, wide-eyed and silent, at the strange ladies and the gorgeous roses, the like of which had never before found their way there. May hardly noticed the children, so preoccupied was she with her own thoughts, but the sight of them gave her sister courage.
As they rose to go, Pauline drew money from her pocket, and, bending over the woman, she said, very gently : " Signora, we have never half thanked you for your singing. May we do so now ? "
The woman's eyes shone, and a pretty color went up the pale, gaunt cheek.
" Ah ! " she said. " You have listened to my singing, and with pleasure ? And it is truly for my singing that you give me this, and not because you are sorry for me?"
And Pauline, remembering how often the tired voice, strained to a high, uncertain pitch, sounding across the water like a cry for succor, had filled her with compassion, could say with truth ; " Signora, your singing has touched our hearts."
As May stood upon the balcony, gazing far out over the lagoon, her young eyes undazzled by the intense mid-day light, she thought how sweet it would be to see again that look of grateful pleasure upon the worn face. Ah, she would sing ! How she would sing ! She would sing the heart into those people in the gondolas ; she would sing the money out of their purses ! The gondolas should gather about her till the water was black with them. She would sing till the night rang with the sound of her voice ! A sense of power had come into her, which she had never felt before. She should take command of those musicians, she should take command of that mysterious, floating audience. No one would know her ; she should not know herself. For one splendid hour she should be set free of herself.
It was the first time in her life that May Beverly had found herself mastered by an enthusiasm. The consciousness of it suddenly seized her and filled her with a curious misgiving. She knelt down upon the floor of the balcony, and, leaning her forehead against the cushion of the balustrade, she tried to collect her thoughts, to regain her balance.
She wondered if she were very foolish, if it were a mere outbreak of shallow vanity that ought to be suppressed. She hoped not. Of course this thing that she wanted to do was shockingly unconventional. Anywhere else, under any other circumstances, it would be out of character ; but here in Venice everything was different. She tried to shut out the magic city from her thoughts, to return to a perfectly normal state of mind.
The hour was very still, even the doves had fallen silent. For a few seconds, as she knelt with covered eyes in her high balcony, only one sound reached her ears ; but that was the dip of an oar, the very heart-beat of Venice. It had the intimate, penetrating power of a whispered incantation ; it touched and quickened the imagination more than peal of bells or chant of marching priests. And as she knelt and listened the young girl felt a scorn of the past and its limitations and its trivial satisfactions—its petty reference of everything to a small, personal standard. The great outer world was knocking at the door of her heart, the world of suffering, and the world of joy, the world of romance, and the world of real human experience.
She would sing tonight ; she would let her own personality go, and be just a human creature doing a daring, inspiring thing for the sake of another human creature who was in need. With a sense of exultant self-surrender she lifted her face and looked up at the Salute. Its domes and pinnacles had been hidden by the low-hanging awning, but now, with her eyes on a level with the balustrade, she could see the lovely temple in all its gracious outlines.
" And I remember I used to wonder whether I liked it," she thought to her-self, with a singular feeling, as if she had been recalling a past state of existence.
She rose to her feet and stepped inside. A pile of sheet music lay upon the table, and she stood a few minutes beside it, turning over the leaves and humming softly to herself. There was a rap at the door, and Uncle Dan appeared.
At once her mood had changed. She was Polly, and here was Uncle Dan, to be cajoled and entreated and vanquished.
" Oh, Uncle Dan ! " she cried, " I thought you never were coming ! I want to talk to you."
" Why, Polly ! " he exclaimed, " what are you up to ? You look like a fright in that thing ! "
" Which means, you never would have known me," Polly declared mischievously. " That's just what I wanted. Now come in like a dear and let me talk to you. No, sit in this chair,— it's much more comfortable. Have you had your cigar ? "
" Of course I have. It 's nearly an hour since luncheon."
" Don't you want another?"
" Polly ! What are you driving at ? "
" I only wanted to make you perfectly comfortable, so that you would enjoy having a little chat with me."
She had seated herself in a low chair opposite him, where she could look straight into his eyes. She pulled off the black lace and proceeded to fold it with great care and precision. There was a look in her face, calculated to make the old soldier call out all his reserves.
" Well, out with it, Polly ! " he cried.
" It's about that poor singer, Uncle Dan ; the woman we took home last night. You remember ? "
" Remember ? I'm not losing my faculties, Polly ! "
" Yes ; of course you remember ! What was I thinking of ? Well, you know we went to see her this morning, and took her those roses of Mr. Kenwick's. Uncle Dan,—they didn't seem to meet the case! " and May looked at her victim with the gravity of a secretary of the metropolitan board of charities.
" That was rather hard on those particular roses," Uncle Dan observed, with a certain grim satisfaction.
" Yes, I think it was. But,—Uncle Dan, I've thought of something much better than roses. I. 'm going to sing for her ! "
" Will that meet the case ? " asked the Colonel, doubtfully. He too had been wondering what could be done for the niece by marriage of Vittorio's grandmother's—what did he say she was ?
" Yes ; for you see I shall be a novelty, and I sing better than she does, and we shall take a lot of money."
" A lot of money, for singing to that woman ? Polly, what are you talking about ? "
And then it was that Polly took the field, and marshalled all her arguments, and did such valiant battle to the Colonel's dearest prejudices and most cherished theories, that he was fairly bewildered and demoralized.
She knew she could do it, she knew she could sing, and singing always sounded lovely on the water. She was in splendid voice,—she had been practicing pianissimo, and it went like a charm. Not a soul would know her. She was going to wear a plain black skirt and a sulphur shawl, —she had always meant to buy a sulphur shawl,—and a lot of beads round her neck. She was going to twist some black stuff about her hair, and then pin the Spanish lace on in the most artistic and Italian manner.
" And you know, Uncle Dan, my hair is the most noticeable thing about me. When that 's covered up I am quite another person. And then the light will be very dim, and so many queer colors from the swinging lanterns that I sha' n't have the vestige of a complexion left ! "
" But the promiscuous audience, the rough company on the barge ! " the Colonel urged, struggling but feebly against a premonition of defeat. Already the old soldier quailed miserably before the enemy.
" They are not a rough company," Polly declared. " I asked Vittorio all about it. He knows nearly all the men, and he says they are gallant uomini. Signor Canti will be there, and he will take beautiful care of me. Signora Canti is to have all the proceeds beyond a certain sum that the others will agree upon."
" The thing seems pretty well settled between you and your gallant hominies," growled Uncle Dan, trying to be severe.
" No ; it 's all settled in my own mind, but I have n't breathed a word of it to anybody but you. And of course you have got to say yes, before I shall take any steps ! "
Superficially regarded, this seemed like a concession ; but the Colonel knew bet-ter. " You have got to say yes ! " To his ears it sounded like the fiat of inexorable fate, and he only gazed, with a look of comical deprecation at the youthful orator, who was gesticulating with the lace fichu, to the destruction of its carefully laid folds.
" Polly, your father would not listen to such a thing for a moment," he jerked out, getting very red in the face.
" But he won't have to ; he never need know a word about it ! " Alas, that was a line of reasoning that struck a responsive chord.
" But Polly would never consent."
" That's the beauty of it ! She 's safely out of the way."
" And Mrs. Daymond,—she would be shocked, I am sure," and his fine color faded with consternation.
" Not if she never knows it ! "
" But I shall know it," he protested, faintly. Then, gathering himself together for a last effort : " No, Polly, I can never consent. Never ! You understand ! It 's useless to talk about it ! " and the Colonel got upon his feet and stepped out upon the balcony, breathing fire and slaughter to all revolutionary schemes. And then Polly knew that she had won the day. When Uncle Dan grew emphatic and peremptory it was a sure sign that he was weakening.
She followed him out upon the balcony, and slipped her hand within his arm.
" O, Uncle Dan," she said, in her most insinuating tone. " You haven't the least idea how I shall sing ! You never heard anything so fine as it will be. I shall sing, so that all the gondolas will come gliding up to listen. And there will be the moon sailing up the sky, and the world will be so big and so (lark that I can let my voice out without a thought of myself, and— O Uncle Dan ! say yes!"
Then a slow, intense flush mounted in the sun-burnt cheek, while a light kindled in the eyes, set deep within the bushy eyebrows. And Uncle Dan looked into the ardent face beside him, and, before he could stop himself, he had exclaimed, half under his breath :
" Gad, Polly ! But I should like to hear you ! "