A Pair Of Pollys
( Originally Published 1896 )
FIVE minutes later Uncle Dan and his two Pollys were once more afloat, a beatific company. Their graceful craft dipped and courtesied to the stroke of the oar as it glided swiftly with the out-going tide, past the gilt ball of the custom-house, past the royal gardens and the Piazzetta and the Doge's Palace, past the red tower of San Giorgio, on and on, far out upon the wide lagoons. Pauline, sitting beside her uncle among the cushions of state, was so absorbed in the mere joy of this gliding, rhythmic motion, that she scarcely paid due deference to the wonders of the Piazzetta, past which they fared so swiftly. Yes ; there were the famous pillars of Saint and Lion, and there, beyond the Ducal Palace, was a passing glimpse of San Marco. It was as it should be, this delightful verification of travellers' tales ; she could afford to hold all that in reserve. But just today, just at this moment, she only wanted to watch the slender prow, skimming the wonderful opaline waters, drawing ever nearer to those mystic islands floating over yonder like a dream within a dream. She wondered vaguely at May's vivid alertness ; for her sister, claiming the privilege of youth, was enjoying the freedom of the gondola, perching here and there as her fancy prompted, in the ample forward space, that nothing might escape her eager, critical attention.
" How queer of them to have put those two windows out of line ! " May ex-claimed, fixing upon the water-front of the Ducal Palace a glance of disapproval beneath which the stately old pile blushed rosy red. At least it was at that moment that she first observed the pinkness of its complexion. " But it 's a lovely color," she hastened to admit; "and those columns in the second story are perfectly dear."
" They have been a good deal admired," Uncle Dan observed dryly, yet with a friendly twinkle that flickered over into the crow's-feet which were such an important feature of his equipment as uncle. And May, nothing daunted, pursued her own train of thought with unflagging spirit.
" Vittorio, which way is the Lido ? " she asked presently, in her crispest Italian. She was sitting on the carpeted steps at the prow, whence she had been regarding, with a quite impersonal interest, the swaying motion of the supple, picturesque figure at the oar. She was not sure that she altogether approved of the broad white straw hat, with fluttering ends of blue ribbon, nor of the blue woolen sash with its white fringe which waved back and forth as its wearer trod the deck ; but these were minor details, and the total effect was undeniably good.
Vittorio, accustomed to that particular kind of attention which the tourist be-stows impartially upon man or gondola, the briccoli whose clustering posts mark the channels in the lagoon, or the towers of the mad-house rising from yonder island,—had continued his unswerving gaze straight over the head of the Signorina. At the sound of his name his bearing changed. Lifting his hat, he took a step forward, and, still plying the oar with his right hand, he said : " Over yonder is Sant' Elisabetta del Lido, where the tourists go. But the Lido reaches for miles between us and the sea,—as the Signore will tell you," he added, with the careful deference that the Colonel knew so well.
The familiar voice of the gondolier, striking across his meditations, had a singular effect upon the Colonel. It made him aware that this was a different Venice from the one which Vittorio had been wont to show him. What had become of the pensive quality of the atmosphere, the brooding melancholy of its impression upon him? Where, he wondered, half-resentfully, was the dim oppression, the subtle pain he had heretofore associated with these tranquil water spaces? What witch-work were those girls playing with the traditions of twenty-five years ? He glanced from one to the other of their unconscious faces, each absorbed after its own fashion. After all, it was pleasant to look upon the world through young eyes. No fear but the old preoccupation would reassert itself in due time. But some-how his mind declined to concern itself with that just now, and with a half humorous deprecation, he resumed his contemplation of his two Pollys.
His claim to such a unique possession formed in itself an achievement upon which the Colonel prided himself not a little. He often recalled his chagrin when his sister Mary,—Polly as he, and he alone had called her,—failed to give her eldest daughter her own name. How could he, a totally inexperienced uncle, enter into satisfactory relations with a young person encumbered with the stately cognomen of Pauline ? She was sure to be haughty and unapproachable. No won-der that she puckered up her face in hostile protest as often as he offered her a perfunctory salutation. He was becoming fairly afraid of the little month-old personage, when one day, he hit upon the reassuring device of turning Pauline, with all its conservative dignity, into Polly. If the testimony of a gentleman and an officer was to be relied upon, their good understanding dated from that hour. For Uncle Dan was willing to take his oath that the very day on which the two soft, ingratiating syllables fell upon the small pink ear, the small pink face relaxed into an expression of kindly tolerance, blossoming out a few days later, into that ecstatic first smile which had sealed his subjugation.
Uncle Dan was perhaps not thinking of this circumstance, as he glanced today at the serenely blissful young face beside him, a face which had never in all these years begrudged him a smile. Yet such reminiscences were not wholly foreign to his thoughts, and they doubtless lent their own agreeable though unrecognized flavor to his meditations, as he looked upon the Venetian lagoons through the eyes of his Pollys.
In the course of time two other little maids had come upon the scene,—Susan and Isabella were their unsuggestive names. Married now, both of them, Uncle Dan was wont to state, parenthetically ; and indeed, if the truth be known, he had always taken a parenthetical view of these unexceptionable little nieces. But when his Polly had remained for seven years without a rival in his affections, a fourth small damsel had presented herself, and had been regarded by her parents as the logical candidate for her mother's name. From that time forth the Colonel was the happy possessor of two Pollys, and it would have been difficult to say which had the more complete ascendency over him. Big Polly and little Polly he called them, and before the little one was well out of long clothes he had formed the project of showing his Pollys the world.
The death of his sister having occurred some years since, his brother-in-law's second marriage which took place after a due interval, left Uncle Dan with a free hand to carry out his project. He could not but feel indebted to Beverly for taking a step which rendered him independent of daughterly ministrations, though such a proceeding ran counter to one of the Colonel's most perverse and therefore most valued theories. That a woman should take a second husband had long seemed to him both natural and proper, but the reasons were obvious, to his mind at least, why a man should be more constant. Be that as it may, however, here they were, Uncle Dan and his Pollys, and to-day, of all days, the Colonel was little disposed to cavil at anything.
" What good manners this man has ! " Pauline remarked, as Vittorio made his answer to the Signorina.
" Yes ; " Uncle Dan replied. " He never slips up on that."
" Where does he get it ? "
"A family trait. His father had it when he used to row me twenty-five years ago, and I've no doubt his forbears were all like that. It's a matter of race."
" A matter of race ! " cried May. " Why, Uncle Dan, when that Italian in the train the other day stared us out of countenance and we asked you to do something about it, you told us it was the custom of the country ! "
" That's only Uncle Dan's way of shirking his responsibilities," Pauline explained. " It's lucky for you, May, that I 'm getting on in life. I don' t know what you would do if you hadn't any better chaperone than Uncle Dan."
" And yet, you don't seem so very old," May remarked, rather doubtfully, tilting her golden head at a critical angle.
" I don't believe anybody would suspect you of being twenty-seven."
" That 's a comfort," laughed Pauline, with a humorous appreciation that was like Uncle Dan's.
Pauline Beverly had not, like her sister, a reputation for beauty, yet she possessed undeniable charm. Her hair was of a sunny brown, and softly undulating ; her eyes were of the same shade as her hair, and capable of a changing light, and, when she smiled, her face, soft and pure, but not brilliant in coloring, had somehow the look of a brook rippling over brown pebbles in a shady place, where the sunshine comes in threads and hints, rather than in an obliterating flood of light. The years, whose sum seemed to May so considerable, had performed their modelling very gently, conferring upon the countenance that winning quality which is the gift of those who habitually think more of others than of themselves.
They were coming in past the red sentinel-tower of San Giorgio, May still sitting on the low steps facing the stern of the gondola. As the young girl looked past her companions, across the silvery spaces of the lagoon, her eyes grew dreamy and far-away. So marked was the phenomenon, that Uncle Dan was moved to exclaim : " A penny for your thoughts, Polly."
May started, for she was not often caught sentimentalizing. Then, with the directness which characterized her, she said : "I was wondering whether one might not perhaps find a soul here in Venice."
" A soul ? What kind of a soul ? "
` Oh, any sort would do, I suppose. You know Signor Firenzo told me my voice was bellissima, but that I hadn't any soul."
"Perhaps Signor Firenzo is a better judge of voices than of souls," Pauline suggested, with a confident little smile.
"A young girl like you hasn't any business with a soul," Uncle Dan declared. " If you think you see one coming over the lagoon you had better turn round and look at the Lion of St. Mark's. He has n't the sign of a soul, yet he 's the best of good fellows, as anybody can see."
May promptly turned, and fixed her eyes upon the classic beast in question.
" I didn't know that lions had such long, straight tails," she remarked.
" The wings strike me as being more out of the common," Uncle Dan chuckled, much reassured by Polly's ready return to the judicial attitude.
" I should almost think," said Pauline, musingly, " that a lion that had wings and a taste for literature might perhaps have a soul after all ! "