Decus At Praesidium
( Originally Published 1896 )
THE search-lights of that evening's talk had betrayed more to Pauline Beverly than the transitory trouble of her sister's mind. In vain did she try to dwell only upon what May had told her, upon the awakening of imagination and feeling that had been revealed in the clear depths of that singularly limpid nature. Unlike as the sisters were, they were yet of closely kindred fibre, and no one but Pauline could have so clearly apprehended or so justly gauged the true significance of the experience which the young girl herself had found so perplexing. Yet because Pauline so well understood it, the thought of it did not wholly possess her mind, and she could not escape an unwilling cognizance of something deeper and far more disquieting, that she had caught a glimpse of in her own soul.
There was nothing of the repellant re-serve in Pauline's character which makes itself evident to the chance acquaintance. If she was innately reticent, it was in a deep, still wise, to the exclusion some-times of her own consciousness,—and it was this inner reticence that had been violated.
In the succeeding hours of the night, her mind recurred many times to that sudden vision of the Salute dome, flashing, white and luminous upon a shadowy background. It had been the apparition of an instant, and yet it was so clearly imaged on her brain, even now, that every slightest detail stood out in her memory, distinct as in the light of day. And simultaneously with that, a search-light had flashed upon the hidden places of her own soul, and she had had a vision which she knew that no veil of reserve, impenetrable though it might be, could annul. The night had fallen upon the Salute and wrapped it from sight, but was it the less real for that ?
In the first dawning light, she got up, and, throwing on a loose gown of soft, pink cashmere, she stepped out upon the balcony to get a breath of air. She did not look toward the Salute ; something withheld her from doing so, as if it had involved a self-betrayal which she shrank from. She turned, instead, to the East, where, rising pale, but distinct, against the faint rosy flush of the sky, was the tower and dome of San Pietro di Castello. A single star still pricked through the deepening color, but, as she looked, it vanished. The dip of an oar, that sound that never ceases, night nor day, on the great thoroughfare of Venice, reached her ear, and a bird chirped in the garden. Each suggestion came to her, isolated and delicately individualized : the star, the oar-dip, the bird-note. She felt herself played upon, like a passive instrument, as if a light hand had just touched one vibrating string and another, careless of definite melody.
The color in the East deepened to a wonderful rose, against which the tower and dome of San Pietro stood out in purest dove-color, and more birds chirped, and one burst into a little gush of song. Pauline, standing on her high balcony, wrapped in the soft cashmere, whose rosy color seemed a reflection of the dawn, felt herself, in some peculiar sense a par-taker in that exquisite awakening ; and, in truth, the surface of the water was not more sensitive to the growing wonder than the delicately expressive face, turned still to the East. Not until the sun had fairly risen, and swept the color from the face of the sky, did she look toward the Salute. There it stood, beautiful and strong and invulnerable, but behind it were dark rain-clouds, heaped high and threatening.
Then Pauline moved away, with a feeling of assured strength and peace. She could not account for it, she could not have defined it ; she only felt as if she had come face to face with a great experience, whether of joy or sorrow she could not tell,—but whatever its countenance she felt serenely ready to meet it.
She slept a deep, peaceful sleep after that, nor did her mind misgive her when she awoke again, to find that those threatening clouds had taken possession of the sky, and were drenching the world with rain.
They went to the Belle Arti that morning, Pauline and May and Uncle Dan, their faithful squire. Vittorio took them there in the hooded gondola, himself radiant in a new " impermeable " hat and coat, which gave him the appearance of a gigantic wet seal, swaying genially on its supple tail.
As they looked out from the shelter of the felze, more impermeable than many rubber coats, May observed that it was a terrible waste of opportunities to go about in a felze with a mere uncle and sister.
" What do you take it that a felze is for ? " asked Uncle Dan, enchanted with her disparaging tone.
" I suppose it was originally invented for the accommodation of lovers," May replied, with her familiar air of scientific investigation, which caused Pauline to smile contentedly.
" Other kinds of conspirators are said to have found it convenient," Uncle Dan observed. " Thieves and cut-throats, for instance. But it strikes me as being a very good place for an uncle, especially in weather like this."
"And you Pauline,—what is your vote?"
" I should think it was a very excellent place to be in with an uncle, or—" "Or?"
" Or anyone else one thought particularly well of," and Pauline gave her sister an appreciative smile.
Then May, usually rather unsusceptible to such quiet demonstrations of affection, put her hand in her sister's and said ; " Pauline, you are a good deal of a dear ! " and there was a certain bright sweetness in the young girl's face that caused Pauline to think of the dawn, and of what a perfect hour it was,—and that there was never any hurry about the sunrise.
They spent an hour, catalogue in hand, among the less important pictures, while Uncle Dan amused himself with some old engravings, and then, having earned their reward, the two girls strolled back to the great saloons, where nothing less splendid than Tintoretto and Veronese makes its appeal to the conscience of the sightseer.
Pauline descended the steps to the main entrance-hall, from which one has the best view of Titian's " Assumption." She seated herself on the broad divan, and looked up through the arched doorway to the glorious soaring figure, that seems, not upborne by the floating cloud of cherubs and angels, but rather drawing all that buoyant throng upward in its marvellous flight. Geoffry Daymond, pausing at the top of the short flight of steps a few minutes later, face to face with Pauline, fancied that he discovered a subtle kinship between her countenance and the pictured one ; and then, as he turned to compare them, he un-hesitatingly gave his preference to the girl of the nineteenth century, with the rare, sylvan face and the uplifted look. As she became aware of his approach a lovely color stole into her face, and there was a welcome in her eyes which she was too sincere to deny.
" We wondered whether we should find you here this rainy morning," she said, as he came toward her down the steps ; and she spoke with such quiet composure that a sudden leaping emotion that had stirred him was checked midway.
" I was looking for you," he replied. " We came across the Colonel and he told us you were here."
" We always come here when it rains, because the light is so good," Pauline observed, wondering that she could think of nothing better to say.
" Yes ; I know it. I passed your sister just now, standing with her back to the world at large, studying a Tintoretto portrait."
" May really understands a good deal about pictures," Pauline remarked, still wondering that nothing but platitudes would come to her lips. She had left her seat, and they were moving toward the steps.
" It seems an age since I have seen you," said Geof, neglecting to reply to her last observation, which, truth to tell, he had scarcely heard.
" It does seem a good while," she admitted. " Not since Quattro Fontane ; " and then she laughed. " That was only yesterday morning, but one does n't reckon time by clocks and calendars in Venice."
" If the clocks and calendars would only pay the old gentleman as little attention as we do, " Geof rejoined, " how lucky we should be ! "
" I wonder whether we should really want time to stand still,—even in Venice," said Pauline, as they passed up the steps into the room where May had last been seen.
"That would depend," Geoffry answered, and there was that indescribable something in his voice which she had heard more than once of late, and which she always found extremely discomposing. The passing of that breath of feeling was still troubling the waters of her consciousness when, a moment later, they were met by the other three.
Mrs. Daymond came forward and took both Pauline's hands, and, straightway it seemed to Pauline as if a bountiful beneficent power had encompassed her round about.
" Geof," said his mother, turning to him, with the unfailing grace of tone and gesture which was a source of perennial delight to the Colonel ; "I find that Colonel Steele's Venetian education is only half accomplished. He does not know San Simeone. Supposing we all go and see the old hero. It has stopped raining and the men must be longing to have us come out again."
"I'm always ready for St. Simon," Geof declared.
" I don't see how we ever overlooked him in the books," said May. "He sounds perfectly tremendous, with his hollow cheeks and his solemn dead face."
" Then we are all going ? " and Mrs. Daymond looked questioningly at Pau-line who had not spoken. It was as if the elder woman had divined something of the unwonted reluctance that had possessed itself of the young girl.
"Do you mind if I stay behind?" Pauline asked, hesitatingly ; "I should like to stay on here for a little while, and then I should be glad of the walk home. So please take both the gondolas."
" Polly does n't like sharp contrasts," the Colonel remarked, as he passed, with the others, out of the gallery and down the stairs. " She has probably got her mind going on some little private inspiration, and she does n't take to the idea of a dead saint."
" No more do I ! " Geof announced, with a reckless inconsistency, that took no thought of appearances ; and, having seen the party safely ensconced under the felze of Pietro's gondola, he retraced his steps, his head slightly bent, his hands clasped behind him.
The rain had ceased, and a timid relenting had stolen into the West. Geof turned and glanced from the sky to Vittorio's gondola which still lay moored under the shelter of the bridge.
" If I only dared 1" he said to him-self ; and then, flinging his head back, with a free, boyish gesture, he strode on to the entrance of the gallery.
Pauline had returned to her seat before the great Titian. She was the only person in the room at the moment. Geof came across the stone floor with a ringing step which caused her to turn, in startled certainty that it was he. There was something in the manner of his approach that affected her like a summons, and she rose to her feet.
He came up to her and, looking straight into her face, he said : " You must come out. The sun will be out before we know it, and one always wants to be out-of-doors when, it clears."
" Are the others waiting ? " she asked.
" No ; Pietro has taken them off. But I think you are right ; St. Simon is not what we want this morning. Supposing we make a call upon the Rezzonico Madonna."
" But I was going to walk home," Pauline demurred, quite sensible of her own futility.
" You can't. It 's really very wet. Do come and take a look at the Madonna."
She turned, with neither protest nor assent, and walked with him down the room. She felt that she had relaxed her hold upon herself. What was it she was yielding to? Something imperative and masterful in him, or something still more masterful and imperative in her own soul? She did not know, she did not consider. She walked with him down the stairs, and out into the outer world, and she knew that she would have walked with him across the very waters of the Canal with the unquestioning faith of the pious little princess whom legend carries over dry-shod to her prayers.
Pauline spoke only once, and that was when her eyes fell upon the gondola coming to meet them.
" The felze ! " she exclaimed, under her breath. If Geof heard her, he was too wise to admit that he did.
" To the Madonna of the Palazzo Rezzonico," he commanded, quite as if Vittorio had been his own gondolier. It crossed his mind that he ought to apologize for his presumption, but he was not in the mood for apologies.
The felze was arranged for three, the little box-seats taken out, and the chair in place of them ; Geof took the chair. And Vittorio rowed them swiftly with the tide, up the Canal, past the tiny striped church of San Vio, to which the pious little princess crosses, in the pretty legend, and on, to the stern and massive Palazzo Rezzonico. The gondola turned down the narrow rio that flows beneath the poet's memorial tablet, and a few strokes of the oar brought them to the feet of the Madonna.
Geoffry and Pauline stepped out of the felze and stood looking up at the lovely figure in its flowing garments, with hands clasped upon the breast, and head bowed beneath its floating aureole of stars. Vittorio, too, stood with his eyes fixed upon the benignant face, and perhaps an ave in his heart if not on his lips.
Presently Pauline said, softly : " You were right."
" I was sure you would think so. It 's only once in a while that one knows exactly what is good for one ; but then,—one knows ! "
" Did you ever notice the inscription on the pedestal? " he asked, after a moment. " Hardly anybody ever does."
" Yes ; Decus et praesidium, " Pauline read.
" For grace and protection," Geoffry translated, " Isn't that pretty ? "
They went inside the felze again, with-out giving any directions to the gondolier, and Vittorio, delightedly equal to the occasion, rowed on, through intricate, winding ways, with many a challenging sta-i ! and premi-o ! and out across the Giudecca Canal. Neither Geoffry nor Pauline was disposed to talk, yet neither of them felt the silence oppressive. After a while they found themselves floating far out on the lagoon beyond San Giorgio. The steady pulse of the oar went on, and the light grew in sky and water.
" See how clear the Euganean hills are," Pauline said, looking out through the little window to those deep-blue pyramids, rising beyond the wide, opaline waters.
Geof, who was again sitting in the little chair, came down on one knee, to bring his eyes on a level with the window, and, steadying himself with his hand on the tufted cord, looked forth and saw the first ray of sunlight break through the clouds and gild the waiting waters. And then he turned from that glistening light and looked into Pauline's face.
The gathering brightness of the world outside seemed only to deepen the shadow and the sheltering privacy of the low, arching roof above their heads ; the rhythmic throb of the oar seemed to grow stronger and more imperative ; the onward impulse of it seized and mastered him. He had meant to say so many things, to urge so many reasons, to make such humble entreaties. But, looking into that tender, gracious face, one thought alone possessed him, and he only said : " Pauline, I love you ! "
Then a wonderful light came into the face he loved, and she answered, as simply as a little child : " I know it, Geoffry ! "
" It seems as if the lagoons belonged to them, this evening, eh, Polly ? "
Uncle Dan and May were standing in the balcony, watching the receding gondola. The stars were shining clear and high,—the lagoon would be strewn with them. Far away on the horizon, May could see a revolving light, coming and going, coming and going. She longed to be out.
" There's the Grand Canal," she suggested, modestly.
" Yes ; there 's the Grand Canal. But, Polly, what do you say to making a call on the Signora ? "
May turned her bright eyes to those of the old soldier, that gleamed questioningly, almost entreatingly, under the grizzly eye-brows.
" That would be very nice," she said, suppressing a little sigh of resignation. " Good girl " cried the Colonel.
" And, look here, Polly, perhaps it 's you who are to be the support of my old age, after all. Who knows ?'' and he cast a glance, half humorous, half reproachful, in the direction in which the gondola had disappeared. He was not yet quite reconciled to the trick fate had played him.
Then May slipped her hand inside his arm, in her own confiding way, and, looking affectionately into the seamed and seared old face, she said, with roguish sweetness : " I tell you what, Uncle Dan ! We shall have to grow old together, you and I!"