( Originally Published 1896 )
"I SHOULD not so much mind if there should be no moon tonight," said May, dipping her hand over the side of the boat, to feel the cool, soft wash of the wave.
" Nothing could be lovelier than this," Pauline assented.
It was evening again and the girls had the gondola to themselves. They were skirting the low shore of the Lido, fragrant with the breath of new-mown hay, vocal with the chirp of crickets and the dull, rhythmic thud of the waves upon the beach. The sky was overcast and the water was dark, save just ahead, where the gondola light cast a pale reflection, wavering softly from side to side, with the motion of the courtesying prow. The twin towers of San Servolo, its massive buildings and sparse lights, had been left behind, and now the gondola was approaching San Lazzaro, wrapped in silence and shadow, like the good monks who pace its quiet paths.
Neither of the girls had felt inclined to talk, yet their sense of mutual companionship was peculiarly near and intimate. Both had been absorbed in the memory of the same stirring scene, and though Pauline had only viewed it from the outskirts she had divined something of the nature of her sister's experience. She felt intuitively that it had been more to the young girl than a gratification of vanity, or even a revelation of her own power. And yet in their overt consideration of the great event, they had dwelt, hitherto, more particularly upon its practical aspects,—the reticence and courtesy of the band of musicians, the really consider able sum of money taken, the hundred-franc piece which had appeared in the receipts, and Uncle Dan's studied innocence in connection therewith. The fact that May had escaped recognition had also been regarded as cause for rejoicing.
May had been glad to find that, unknown to her, her sister had been among the audience. Her presence seemed, in retrospective wise, to sanction and sustain her action. If Pauline was there all was well.
As they glided tranquilly along the line of the fragrant shore, the regular dip of the oar marking the passage of the seconds, like the soft, lisping tick of certain pleasant old clocks, the nine-o'clock gun roared its admonition from the deck of the " guardian of the port," and the bells of San Lazzaro jangled sweetly on the night air. And then it was that May roused to the need of speech.
" And you knew me at once ? " she asked,—not for the first time indeed, for that was a very vital question.
"Yes, I knew your voice, and when we came a little nearer I knew the way you held your head."
" And you did n't mind ? "
" No ; I think, myself, it's rather strange that I did not. But it seemed perfectly natural and right. I believe I took it all in from the first moment — just how you had undertaken it for the sake of the poor Signora, and how then you had forgotten the Signora and for-gotten yourself."
They were silent again, while the gondola rounded San Lazzaro and turned toward home.
" Do you know what I thought of while I was listening to you ? " Pauline asked, as the lights of the Riva appeared in their line of vision, glimmering remotely on the shore and in the water. "Especially when you were singing that glorious Patria? I thought of what Signor Firenzo said about your voice, and of what you said yourself, that first day in Venice,—about finding a soul here."
"You did?" May exclaimed ; then, in a lower voice : " So did I ! "
They had passed San Lazzaro, and San Servolo too was receding astern of them before May spoke again.
"Pauline," she queried, presently : " Did you see Nanni's gondola come up from out the lagoon in front of us ? "
" Yes, I saw it. How ghostly it was, with his solitary figure, and then that tragic face of his in the light of the lanterns !
Suddenly, as she spoke, a broad beam of white light swept the long line of the Riva, and leapt to the point of the campanile, striking the golden angel into instantaneous brilliancy.
"What 's that?" cried Pauline, startled at the suddenness of the apparition.
" It's a search-light," May answered. " See ! It comes from the man-of-war over by Sant' Elisabetta. There ! Look there ! "
The light had dropped from the campanile, and now it shone full upon the masts and rigging of an East Indiaman lying off San Giorgio Maggiore„ Each rope and spar stood out in the intense white light, distinct as if cased in ice.
" La Luce elettrica," Vittorio observed,
unable to suppress his pride in this new sensation furnished for the delectation of his Signorinas.
" Pauline," said May, with grave emphasis ; " Nanni knew me."
" You are sure ? "
" Perfectly. I saw it in his face,—and, besides, that is all he could have meant by his message. You did n't hear that, did you ? "
" No ; and he left you a message ? "
" Yes ; when we landed at Quattro Fontane this morning, and found Mr. Daymond there—did you notice that he seemed to have something to say to me ? "
" Yes ;—I noticed."
" He wanted to tell me that he had been walking on the beach with Nanni, and that Nanni had gone back to Milan and had left a message for me."
" And the message ? "
" The message was,—` addio e grazie ! ' Don't you see? He was thanking me for the singing. I think he knew that I was singing for him."
The light had sprung to the tower of San Giorgio, whose straight shaft stood out in new intensity of martial red, its golden angel gleaming like a belated echo of the angel of the campanile.
" Singing for him ? " Pauline repeated, yet as if she already half understood.
" Yes, the song of exile. It was just then that he came up. I 'm sure he knew that I was thinking of him as I sang, for there was a look in his face that I shall never forget."
" Tell me why, dear."
" Yes ; I will tell you why, though it's rather a long story," May answered, yielding to an imperative need of confession. " I can't quite account for it all, but, up to last night, I had always felt perplexed and disturbed about the man. He made me feel a great many things I had never felt before. It seemed to me as if I had never before known a single thing about—anything real,—about any human creature but myself. And yet I suppose the very reason why this haunted me so was because I did not understand. I felt always that there was a mystery, something I couldn't get hold of, and you know how I do hate a mystery."
As May forced her thoughts to take shape, she felt that it was her own mind rather than Pauline's that was being en-lightened. It was as if Pauline must understand,—as if it were Pauline who was making things clear to her. Yet Pauline did not say a word. She only listened, her head inclined a bit, her eyes intent and comprehending.
" I think," May went on, " I think it must have been something really high and fine in him that made the sordidness of it all seem so intolerable. I suppose it is as Uncle Dan says ;—these things are a matter of race. I think Nanni must have more than his share of the family inheritance. Did you never feel it, Pauline?"
" Yes, there was certainly something impressive about him," Pauline admitted.
" I'm glad you thought so, too. Well, do you know, Pauline, it came to me last night like a revelation, that I had been all wrong and morbid about it. I remembered how he had said to me, one day when I was talking to him about coming back to Venice : ` You mistake me and my life, Signorina.' It did not impress me so much at the time—something drove it out of my head ;—but, suddenly, as I saw his face last night, I seemed to understand what he meant."
They were passing near two fishing-boats moored to a cluster of piles, a single deck-light shining clear and steady, reflected in the water like a long yellow finger. The men had deserted the boats and were swimming somewhere out of sight in the darkness, their voices sounding curiously near and distinct across the water.
" I suppose it was the song that touched him," May was saying. " It is such a beautiful song, and the moment I began singing. I felt as if it had been written expressly for him. Pauline, he had a look such as a man might have who was facing a great renunciation, with the spirit of a hero. And it came to me like a flash, that a man who could look like that need not mind where he lived, or what his service was. And when I heard to-day that he had gone back to his work, I was not at all surprised, and I was not even sorry for him, as I should have been yesterday. I felt as if I understood."
May had been speaking fast, with an eager, half questioning manner, as if everything depended upon Pauline's agreeing with her. Now she paused, and looked into her sister's face, close beside her in the dim light. And Pau-line returned her look with one that set her heart at rest.
" I think you have discovered something very deep and true," she said, gently. " And it is one of those things that nobody can tell us, that we must discover for ourselves. But, May," she added, after a moment's reflection, " I don't believe we need think of the man's work as mean or sordid. I should think it might be a very valuable sort of service that he renders at the hospital. Do you remember that day, the first week we were here, when we were waiting for the sacristan at the Madonna del Orto, and a little girl on the quay fell down and hurt her arm ? "
" Yes ; I remember,—and how quickly Nanni sprang ashore and picked her up."
"Well ;—do you know, May, there was something in the way he bent over the little thing and examined her arm to see if it were really hurt, that impressed me very much. His touch was so gentle, and there was so much intelligence in the way he did it, that I have thought, ever since, what a blessing it must be to have such a man about in a hospital."
"Yes," said May, thoughtfully,—"perhaps that is why he chooses that life. That would explain a great deal. I am glad you reminded me of it, Pauline,"—and again she reached her arm over the side of the boat, and let the cool water slip through her fingers, watching the little ripple they made upon the surface. " Perhaps that was what Mr. Daymond meant when he said he had had a talk with Nanni, and he did not think that I need have any more anxiety about him, —that he was doing the work he could do best, and that he was happy in doing it."
" And you had told Mr. Daymond, be-fore that, that you were disturbed about it ? " Pauline asked, with a swift, uncontrollable contraction of the heart.
" Yes ; we had a talk about Nanni the evening of the illumination. Pauline," May exclaimed, with a sudden change of tone, " what a waste it is that that nice fellow hasn't any sisters ! "
"Who? Mr. Daymond?"
" Yes ; he would make such a perfect brother. He is so dear, and good, and—unromantic ! "
As the words fell, crisp and incisive on the still night air, their point and meaning piercing like finely tempered steel to Pauline's innermost consciousness, the search-light flashed out again, striking full upon the Salute. For a fleeting instant the glorious dome curved white and luminous against a lowering sky, vanishing again as the light was withdrawn. Pauline caught her breath, and the blood raced through her veins. She was startled, she assured herself, by the suddenness of the flash.
When she spoke, her voice was tranquil as ever, yet curiously shot through with feeling.
" If Geoffry Daymond told you that," she said, " I think you may feel satisfied."
" I do," May answered, noting with surprise that her sister had given Geoffry Daymond his full name ;—it was not Pauline's way. " Yes, I do," she repeated, " it is a great relief."
It was only for a moment that Pauline's interest in her sister's story had wavered. She had listened, and with unerring comprehension, thanks to which she had not been misled as another might have been.
" There comes the moon out of the clouds," she exclaimed. " Take us where we can see the moon, Vittorio."
" Si, Signorina."
They had come opposite the Salute, and now the prow of the gondola turned in at the narrow rio that runs between the great church and the lovely old Abbazia of San Gregorio. There were deserted gondolas and other craft moored at one side of the little canal, and as they pushed their way past them, the oar lapped the water with the peculiar sound it makes in passing through a restricted passage. They glided under a low bridge, beyond which the moon appeared, just issuing from a bank of cloud, and, a moment later, they had floated out into the Giudecca, among the tall black hulls of the shipping, lying there at anchor.
" How good and genuine the moon looks after those search-lights ! " May exclaimed, with a sigh of satisfaction.
" Yes, but they were a wonderful sight," Pauline maintained.
" Perhaps so ; but they were artificial, and one does like things to be natural."
They had rowed the length of the Giudecca, watching the moon's vicissitudes among the clouds, and now they had once more turned toward home, making their way through one of the prettiest rios of the Tolentini quarter.
" I suppose," Pauline remarked, as they came out upon the Grand Canal, " that, in a deep sense, artificial things, —of the good kind,—are just as natural as things we have no control over. I suppose we get our search-lights from Nature, only in a more round-about way."
" Perhaps we do," May replied ; adding, with apparent irrelevance, " and I 'm not sure that I should be willing to have missed it."
That same evening, in the fever ward of a Milan hospital, two figures were standing beside a narrow cot in earnest consultation. The patient was a child of ten. The little face had the look of many another little fever-stricken face, but the hair that lay tossed upon the pillow was of exceptional beauty.
" Can we save her, Signor Dottore ? " It was the nun who spoke.
" We must," the doctor answered, with quiet emphasis.
He stooped and lifted in his hand one of the disordered tresses. It was neither blonde nor auburn, but pure gold, the lovely gold that sometimes shines in the heart of the sunset. aven the nun felt the beauty of it.
" Did you ever see such hair as that ? " she asked.
He laid the tress back upon the pillow, very gently, and, looking into the quiet eyes of the sister, he answered :
" Never but once."