( Originally Published 1896 )
"To the bankers', Vittorio."
" Si, Signore. Will the Signore go by the Grand Canal?
" By all means. And don't hurry. There is plenty of time."
"Si, Signore ! The bank will wait !
The little jest fell as soothingly familiar upon the ear of Vittorio's one passenger as the dip of the oar or the bell of San Giorgio Maggiore sounding across the harmonizing water spaces. And yet the Colonel was only half aware that every word, every inflection of the little dialogue had passed between them on just such an afternoon in May five years ago, and again five years before that, if the truth must be told.
They were passing the charming little Gothic palace known as the House of Desdemona, and we may be pretty sure that the two little stone girls that keep watch there upon the corners of the balcony railing, were reminded by these words that another lustre had slipped by since last they heard them. If they were as observant as they should have been, considering that they had nothing to occupy them but the use of their eyes and ears, they must have noted the fact that while the soldierly figure of the old gentleman had not grown a whit less erect, the many wrinkles upon his clean-cut countenance were perceptibly deepened in the interval. A curious effect of years, those hard-headed little images must have thought. They could perceive no such change in one another's countenances, though they had witnessed the passage of several centuries. But then, the little stone girls had one marked advantage over people of flesh and blood, for they stopped short off at the shoulders. Their creator having made no provision for a heart in their constitutions, they could never grow old,—any more than they could ever have been truly young.
The tide was still going out, and the gondola moved very slowly up-stream. The Colonel was silent, as he had been silent during the passage of this particular part of the Canal once in five years since ever so long ago. Presently the gondola, in its leisurely progress came opposite a pretty old palace with charming rose windows to give it distinction. There were flower-boxes in the balcony, and other signs of habitation, and the Colonel, quite as if he were rousing from a reverie, and casting about for some-thing to say, turned half-way toward the gondolier and asked : " The Signora Daymond, is she here this season ? "
"Si, Signore ; and her Signor son is also in Venice."
This last statement formed a new departure, the " Signor son " having been absent on the occasion of the Colonel's more recent visits. The announcement excited in him a curious and quite unfounded resentment. Indeed, so disturbing was it, not because of any inherent objectionableness, but because of its implication of a change, that the Colonel found himself quite thrown out of his accustomed line of procedure. That this was the case was made manifest by the fact that he did not adhere so far to established precedent as to wait until after they had passed under the iron bridge before looking quite round into Vittorio's face and asking : " All is well at the little red house? The wife and the children ? "
" All well, Signore ; only the mother died last winter."
" Your wife's mother, I think it was ? " "Si, Signore ; she died in February." One less mouth to feed, the Colonel thought to himself; and perhaps the thought was apparent to the quick perception of the gondolier, although the padrone only remarked : " An old woman she must have been."
For Vittorio's face grew wistful, and there was a tone of gentle reproach in his voice, as he said : " We should. like well to have the mother with us again."
" Of course, of course ! " the Colonel assented, eager to disclaim his unspoken disloyalty. " And Nanni ? What do you hear from him ? "
" He is paying us a visit, the first in three years. He does not forget the old life, and when the Milan doctors told him he must take a long rest, that he needed a change, he said : ` I know it ; I need to feel an oar in my hand and the leap of the gondola under my feet.' "
" And does he row ? "
" Si, Signore. He has an old tub of a gondola and he paddles about in it all day long and is content as the king. More content, for he is doing what he pleases, and the king,—it is said that he cannot always do as he pleases. If he could we should be better governed."
A puzzled scowl contracted the fine open brow of the gondolier. That a king should not do as he pleased was as puzzling as it was grievous.
" He is doing well, Nanni ? "
"Si, Signore, benissimo ; and yet he loves the gondola and the old life."
The Colonel drew his brows together as if the statement had not given him unmixed pleasure. " Do you think he is ever sorry for the education and the change ? " he asked.
"Sorry? Oh, no ! His profession is his life. Even here when he ought to rest, he goes again and again to the Scuola di San Marco, the great hospital, to see the sick people and talk with the doctors. Signore," and Vittorio's voice sank to a stage whisper : " Nanni is writing a book. It is about the sanitation of the houses."
The gondolier had stepped forward close behind the cushioned seat, and was stooping, with bended knee, his head almost on a level with the padrone's. Keeping the oar constantly in motion, and with an occasional deft turn of the wrist to avoid a collision,—for the Grand Canal was a crowded thoroughfare at this hour,—he nevertheless seemed to have eyes only for the erect figure and the grizzled head of his old friend.
" Our benefactor does not permit us to speak to him of what is in our hearts," he said, in his stately Italian ; and again his voice dropped, and this time to a wonderfully melodious tone : " But the Madonna listens to us every morning and every evening. We all remember the padrone, even the piccolo Giovanni, whom he has never seen."
A look of comical deprecation crossed the face of the passenger, and he said, rather abruptly : ` I hope Nanni is good to the rest of you."
"Si, Signore ; Nanni is a good brother ; but we are many and he is not rich.
Ecco ! The gondola of the Signora Daymond. Will the Signore speak with her ? "
" Not today," the Colonel answered, hastily and in another instant, before the occupants of the other boat had looked in their direction, Vittorio had stepped back to his post at the stern, and had given a twist of the oar that sent the gondola straight across the prow of a steamboat coming down-stream.
``Lungo ! " he shouted, as peremptorily as if the great puffing interloper had been a tiny sandolo, and the big boat actually did slow up a bit, while Vittorio swiftly rounded it, thus placing its great hull between his own and the Signora's gondola.
"You're a good oarsman, Vittorio," the padrone remarked. " I always said that I should like to cross the ocean with you.,,
" I would rather the Signore stayed here," Vittorio exclaimed, while a flashing smile lit up his handsome face ; " I would rather the Signore took a little palace and stayed here in Venice ! "
Before the Signore had had time to give this time-honored proposition the consideration which it merited, the gondola was lying alongside the steps at the bankers' door, and his attention was distracted by a very ragged, but seraphically beautiful urchin, who was excitedly wriggling his body through the railing of the adjoining ferry-landing, with a view to pressing his services upon the foreign gentleman. His efforts were finally successful, and when, a few minutes latter, the Colonel emerged from the doorway, he found his entry into the gondola relieved of all supposititious perils by the application of five very brown bare toes to the gunwale. As he placed his penny in the tattered hat of his small preserver, he bestowed upon him a smile so benignant that all the rival ragamuffins assembled upon the ferry-landing took heart of hope and shouted, as one boy : " Un soldino, Signor ! Un soldino !"
Vittorio, with a look of superb scorn, calculated to convince the uninitiated that he himself had never been a Venetian ragamuffin, gave three long strokes of the oar, which sent the gondola far out upon the Canal, well beyond the reach of such importunities.
" To the hotel, Signore ? "
" Yes ; the young ladies will be ready to go out by this time. They are my nieces, Vittorio."
" And is it their first visit in Venice ? " " Yes ; we have spent the winter in
Italy, and we left the best for the last." " The Signore still loves Venice ? "
" Better than any spot in the world.
We will take the short cut home, Vittorio."
Then Vittorio, with the deep joy which may hide in the hearts of other men, but never shines in full radiance upon any but an Italian face, turned the gondola into the same narrow rio through which he had rowed his passengers from the station earlier in the day.
The Colonel had caught the flash in the dark face, and his own countenance had assumed an answering mobility. The tension of his first hours in Venice was apt to yield, though not usually as early as this. But then, he had never before had the pleasure of his two precious Pollys in anticipation. As the gondola drew near a certain stone bridge guarded by an iron railing, the sight of a woman in a sulphur shawl, lingering there to speak with a neighbor, gave him a reminiscent sense of amused gratification.
Presently they came round in front of the Venezia, and Uncle Dan looked up to a certain high balcony, whence his coming was hailed by a lively flutter of hand-kerchiefs.
" Et-co, my nieces ! " he remarked to Vittorio, with ill-suppressed pride of ownership ; a claim, be it observed, which the two Pollys would have been inclined to dispute ; since, according to their own faith and practice, it was they who owned Uncle Dan !