( Originally Published 1896 )
FROM the moment when the Colonel made his fatal admission, his cause was lost and he knew it. He was too good a soldier to fight for the sake of fighting, but he was not a little shocked at the alacrity with which he went over to the enemy.
Yet the step was not an unprecedented one. It was not for nothing that he had been for years the willing slave of his Pollys, that his whole training as uncle had tended to cultivate in him the grace of obedience. " As the twig is bent the tree inclines," and he had been the merest twig of an uncle, if not in years, at least in experience, when he had yielded to the sunny persuasiveness of that first faint glimmering of a smile in the baby face of the original Polly. His subjugation, moreover, having hitherto proved beneficial in its results, he was the more excusable, to-day, for letting himself be swept along by the impetus of his tyrant's will.
There was little time for reflection ; indeed, as it was, a young person of less executive ability than May could hardly have accomplished what she brought to pass in the few hours at her disposal. She flew from the Venezia to the Signora Canti for the first unfolding of her plan, from the almost speechless Signora to the Merceria in search of the sulphur shawl, and thence to the Signora Canti again, attended all the while by Uncle Dan, whose cane struck sharply on the pavement of the narrow, reverberating alley-ways. The business was all transacted on foot, that even Vittorio might be kept in ignorance of the great secret. Through the good offices of the Signor Canti the barge musicians were interviewed, and the details of the undertaking arranged. Even a small rehearsal was brought about in the somewhat restricted quarters of the Canti apartment, and great was May's rejoicing, to find how many of her favorite songs were well-known to the quartette of accompanists.
As the Colonel looked back upon the afternoon, he had a bewildered sense of having taken part in a general engagement, very brilliant in character, but with the conduct of which he, as private, had had no concern whatever. And now it was evening, and he was floating in the gondola out on the broad basin of St. Mark's, awaiting, with no little trepidation, the progress of events.
No, his nieces would not be with him, he had told Vittorio. One was gone to Torcello, and the other had an engagement for the evening,—which Vittorio thought peccato. The padrone proposed to float about in the moonlight for a while, and listen to the music, and this, at least, was benissimo, and commanded the gondolier's warmest approval.
Scarcely had Vittorio been thus pacified than the barge with its dangling lanterns, beneath which the Colonel had seen his Polly safely ensconced but a few minutes since, came floating out from a narrow canal, and glided slowly along the Riva, past the Royal Gardens and the Piazzetta, to the outermost of the great hotels. Sitting among the " gallant hominies " was a figure in a sulphur shawl, with a cloud of Spanish lace about the head, so ingeniously disposed that the features were somewhat hidden, yet apparently with no intention of covering the face.
" That looks like the Canti barge, Vittorio," the Colonel remarked. " Let us go nearer and find out who is to do the singing. Do you know the woman ? "
" No, Signore. It is a stranger," Vittorio declared. " It is not a Venetian."
" What makes you think so ? "
" I do not know her face."
The sunset glow had quite faded from the sky and the great disk of the moon hung like a luminous shield over beyond San Giorgio. Its wonderful light, liquid and silvery as the water of the lagoons, flooded their wide reaches, and touched with a soft splendor each sculptured façade and arching bridge of the Riva, and the masts and hulls and loose-reefed sails of a group of fishing boats lying close alongside the quay. Far up the canal, a tenor voice could be heard, strong and melodious, and stray gondolas were tending toward it.
Suddenly, more than one oar was stayed, and more than one face was turned toward the Canti barge. The music had begun, with a familiar Neapolitan melody, in which all the voices and instruments took part. But high above them all rose a clear soprano, only the sweeter and the richer for the dull rhythm of the lesser voices. One by one the receding gondolas turned and came nearer, one bright eye gleaming at each prow, as they stole like conspirators upon the gaily lanterned barge. And from farther away still, from the Grand Canal and from the waters of the Giudecca, black barks came floating, and silently joined the growing throng. The chorus had sung twice, thrice, four times,—always the popular airs, so familiar, yet to-night so new, by reason of the lift and brilliancy of the leading voice.
One of the men stepped across the Colonel's gondola and on from one to another, hat in hand. " Per la musica! " he entreated, and a goodly shower of nickles and coppers and fluttering lire were gathered in. But still not a gondola moved away, and later comers had to tie on the outskirts, spreading now, fan-shaped, with twinkling eyes, far over toward San Giorgio.
Uncle Dan fell to counting the twinkling eyes, and his heart swelled within him. There must be close upon a hundred people here, drawn hither, held fast, by his little Polly. There she stood, in her sulphur shawl, unrecognizable, to be sure, but natural and self-possessed as if she had been singing in her own parlor.
Somebody called for Gordigiani's O Santissima Veigine,—a favorite song of " la Canti." The singer rose again to her feet. The low, pulsing accompaniment sounded on the strings, and presently the voice began, with a softly vibrating tone, different from the resonant quality which had first attracted the listeners.
" O Santissima Vergine Maria ! "
" I told you it was a trained voice," Uncle Dan heard someone say in a neigh-boring gondola. " I believe she 's a stage singer. Just listen to that ! "
" Hush, don't talk ! " the answer came. " It's the sweetest thing I ever heard."
And in truth a delicate, penetrating pathos had come into the fresh young voice, pleading so melodiously for the life of "mio ben."
"O Maria, O Maria," was the artless supplication ; " I vow to give to thee the ring my mother bought for me four years ago, and the coral necklace, Canto bello ! "
And then, with simple fervor, the Ma-donna was assured that, would she but save it poverino, a candle should be burned to her every Saturday,—" ogni Sabbato, Maria, Maria I"
As the last note ceased, sweet and sad, on the night air, a burst of applause went up, and, " encore, encore," the forestieri shouted, " encore ! " And other gondolas came gliding up, and the spreading fan stretched in ever widening compass, divided now, like the pinions of a great sable bird studded with dots of light. Then, while the flowing moon-light brightened, and a perfumed breeze came wafted over the water from the rose gardens of the Giudecca, the sweet voice again took up the simple and touching strain.
After that it was an ovation,—" an ovation, I tell you," Uncle Dan would declare, when bragging about it to the other Polly. " Why the people were perfectly carried off their feet ! When the hat went round they didn't know what it was they pulled out of their pockets. A ten-franc piece seemed cheap as a copper. And all the time, Polly, standing there, singing her heart out ! It was an ovation, I tell you,—an ovation ! "
And as Polly sang on and on, light opera airs, rhythmical barcarolles, songs of the people, with their naïve, swinging cadence, a new, exultant sense of power seemed lifting her above her own level.
And presently an inspiration seized her, and, leaning forward, she said to Canti : " Make them row out on the lagoon, toward the Lido ; I can sing better there."
Then the barge loosed itself from the clinging gondolas, and slowly glided out and away. And all the gondolas followed, with the soft plash of many oars, on and on, after the swinging lanterns and the syren voice.
To the young girl, borne out of herself into a strange, unimagined experience of beauty and harmony and power, into a newly awakened sympathy, too, with each dreamer and lover and mourner whose lay she sang, it was as if old things had passed away and all things were become new. And presently, as they drifted on in the flooding moonlight, leaving the lights of the city behind them, she could see the small, low glimmer of a gondola-lamp gliding from out the mysterious spaces of the lagoon.
At that moment Canti whispered a request that the Signorina would sing " Patria, Tito Mattei's beautiful song of exile. She consented, with a feeling of awe, as if acting in obedience to some higher compulsion. The barge had paused, and the multitudinous plash of oars was hushed as she began to sing :
"Al mio ciel m'ha tolto il fato." [" Fate has torn me from my own skies."]
The vagrant gondola had come nearer, and now it was drawn close up under the bow of the barge, just on the edge of the throng of boats. The Signorina scarcely needed to glance at the oarsman, standing in the full light of the lanterns, to know that it was no other than the exile whose lament it had been given her to sing. Yet, as the song ceased for a moment, while the strings played an interlude in full, strongly vibrating chords, she looked involuntarily toward the figure whose identity she was already so curiously aware of. The man made a movement forward, resting on his oar, and, as their eyes met, she knew that he, too, had recognised her. She turned away, as the song recommenced, but the consciousness of what she had seen was vividly present with her. He knew her, he knew that she was singing for him, that she was singing the song of his exile.
A singular, almost fantastical exaltation took possession of the young girl, an exaltation such as might have possessed itself of a priestess of old, pouring a libation to the gods in behalf of some devout suppliant. He had known her, this mysterious, homeless being that had come floating across the waters to hear the song of his exile. A deep, thrilling emotion lifted her on its crest, as the long, slow, elemental rhythm of the ocean had lifted the frail shell of the gondola, far out at the Porto del Lido, such a life-time ago. But now she did not shrink from it, she was not disconcerted by it. She only sang on, with growing passion and power. Everything small and personal seemed swept away. She felt herself a human creature, singing the needs and aspirations of another human creature. She was alive, she had come into her birth-right. This man, whose personality had so haunted and harassed her, was no longer an enigma ; she no longer commiserated him. What mattered poverty, suffering, exile? To be alive was enough ; to have la patria, or any other great and high thought in the soul was infinitely more than any mere presence or possession.
All this was coursing through her mind, and the spirit of it was entering into her song, with an urgency and power that gave it a really extraordinary dramatic force. The last words
" Dolce atria è il cor con te, Dolce patria è il cor con te ! "
rang out with an impassioned brilliancy of tone that took the listeners by storm.
As the singer sank upon her seat, not spent by the effort, but rather absorbed with the new thoughts and emotions that were crowding upon her, the clapping of many hands sounded to her remote and meaningless, and she did not even notice that the solitary gondola had slipped away.
Canti feared that she was really exhausted. " It is enough, Signorina," he said ; " we will go home."
As the barge turned, the gondolas made way for it, and then they pressed about it again, to offer more money and more. There was no longer any need of passing the hat.
And May felt that she had finished, that it was enough. She sat very still, the folds of the black lace almost covering her face, as they rowed homeward to chorus after chorus of gay songs : "La bella, Napoli," " Funicoli funi cola," "Margherita." She experienced no painful reaction ; she was filled with an uplifting sense of successful achievement. And her thoughts had turned almost immediately to the poor Signora in whose behalf all this had been done.
They must have taken a great deal of money, May thought,—a hundred francs,—perhaps more. Enough to purchase a long respite for the over-worked singer. Perhaps by the time the poor thing was obliged to sing again, she would have grown so strong and well, that her voice, too, would be fresh and pure, and she would have the unspeakable joy of singing because she could not help it.
May remembered the expression of the great Italian eyes, set in the haggard face, as the woman had said to her : " The Madonna will bless you, Signorina ! " Yes, she had a soul, the poor Signora, hard-pressed and starved, but a soul, all the same. May smiled softly to herself, almost as Pauline might have done.
" Funicoli funicolà I" the chorus was singing—the colored lanterns were bobbing with the stroke of the oars, and all the while the young girl was passing in review the people she knew, and wondering to discover how many of them were possessed of souls ! There was Uncle Dan and Pauline, and Mrs. Daymond, and, surely Vittorio, with his fine, manly spirit, and his childlike faith. They all had souls, each after his kind ; they all had a comprehension of some-thing not visible and material. What a wonderful thing life was ! She could not grasp it yet, but somehow, in some mysterious wise, the world was changed ; —not the moonlit world of romance alone, but the great day-lighted world, where people suffered and rejoiced and grew strong.
And just as the barge came opposite the glittering lights of the Piazzetta, beyond and above which the luminous shaft of the campanile rose straight and white, tipped with its golden angel, the men began to sing " Santa Lucia„" And once more a voice rose above the others, fresh and clear as ever ;
"Sul mare luccica
And, as the bobbing lanterns disappeared down a black side-canal, the ringing voice echoed still from out the darkness ;
" Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!"