( Originally Published 1896 )
WHEN Vittorio was told to come for them in the evening, he had cast a significant glance at a certain radiant white cloud, billowing in the West, and said : " Speriamo " ; which, in the vocabulary of the gondolier means : " Let us hope for the best and prepare for the worst." Upon which the cloud had gradually taken on more formidable proportions, until, just at dusk, it burst in a torrent of rain, which swept the Grand Canal clear of sight-seers, and sent the nightly serenaders, who usually act as magnets to the wandering gondolas, into the hotels for refuge. A band of them were established in the long, wide corridor of the Venezia, where their strong, crude voices and their twanging strings reverberated rather noisily.
Wondering how it must seem to have nerves young enough to sustain such rough treatment, the Colonel abandoned his nieces to their self-inflicted ordeal, and mounted the stairs to his own familiar quarters. And there, as he closed the door behind him, he ceased to speculate upon such ephemeral matters.
He had come up, ostensibly to write some letters, but instead of doing so, he lighted a cigar, and seated himself at the window, watching the swoop of the rain along the hurrying waters of the Canal. The tide was coming in and the wind was with it. One gondola at the ferry was struggling across the current, with difficulty held to its course by the efforts of its straining oarsman. The passengers had taken refuge under the felze, or gondola hood. Impatient of the slow progress of the boat, the Colonel looked down into the hotel- garden directly beneath his windows, which was drowned in a moist blur, that only seemed intensified where it focused about the electric lights. Over there again, across the Canal, stood the great Salute, showing ghostly and unreal in its massive whiteness, half obliterated by the driving rain. It would have seemed that the most perfunctory letter-writing might have been an improvement upon such a prospect as that. Yet the Colonel sat on, puffing in a desultory manner at his excellent cigar, and reflecting that another five years had gone by.
A curious thing, he was thinking to himself, how inevitably he found himself in Venice once in five years. It was not in his plan to do so. He would have been just as ready to return after an interval of two years, or of three ; but, for one reason or another, he never seemed able to arrange his affairs to that end until the fifth year had come round. Somebody was sure to die and leave him executor of his will ; or this or that charity of which he was treasurer made a point of getting into a tight place. To-morrow was the twenty-ninth of the month ;—to-morrow always was the twenty-ninth on his first arrival in Venice. Yet that, too, was the merest accident, as he assured himself with some heat. None of these things were premeditated.
He should call upon her to-morrow,—certainly. It would be a downright discourtesy to wait until they had met by chance. He wondered if she were expecting him. Probably not ; she had other things to think of, especially now that her son was with her.
It would be a pleasure to see her,—her beautiful, friendly eyes, that enchanting smile, that wonderful turn of the head. As though she could ever have cared for a battered old wreck like him ! And yet he knew, with an indubitable knowledge, that he should ask her again. And the answer would be the same as it had been twenty-five years ago, when she was but a three-years' widow.
He had been hasty, he had not sufficiently respected her past. He should have waited. And yet, when he came again, after five years, perhaps that, too, was an error of judgment. Perhaps his coming, after so long an interval, caused the revival of old memories, caused a shock which might have been avoided if he had ventured sooner. And then, when another five years had passed, he had begun to age. A man who has seen field service has not the staying powers of other men. That London doctor knew all about it in a moment. Yes, he had already begun to age, fifteen years ago. And now !
The Colonel relighted his cigar, which had gone out. How the rain kept at it ! He could hear the swish of it on the wall of the house across the garden. Even Venice could be dreary.
He had never seen her anywhere else. He did not ask himself why he had refrained from seeking her out in her own home, not five hundred miles from his own,—why he had always come to her here in Venice, where all her married life had been spent. After all, a man does what he must. And tomorrow he should ask her again ! He did not wish to, he did not even intend to. He could :resolve not to, here, in cold blood, with the disheartening rain blotting out the rose-bushes down below, and a disheartening conviction of failure blotting out his nerve and courage. But to-morrow she would rise to meet him, in her own gracious way, he should touch her beautiful, firm hand, where a single jewel shone. He thought if he could ever see another ring upon that hand, one which, having no significance of its own, might weaken the significance of that diamond, now grown old-fashioned in its low setting, there might be a chance for him. But, no ; there would be but the one ring, and there would be no chance for him ;—and yet he should ask her !
There was another gondola struggling across the Canal. Why should anyone be out in such weather ? It must be a lover, or some such sanguine person, bent, as like as not, upon a fruitless errand. The Colonel had but scant sympathy with lovers ; they so rarely had any discrimination.
Yes, she would come forward, with ex-tended hand, to meet him. He wondered whether the streak of grey on the right temple would have widened appreciably. Perhaps it would have spread itself, like a fine white film of lace, over the abundant hair. It would probably be very becoming. That was another curious thing ; every time he saw her she had grown more beautiful. The years that had dealt so harshly with him had touched her only to an added grace and tenderness ; experience had drawn only noble lines upon her face, and there was an ever-increasing warmth and graciousness of countenance which was infinitely finer than the bloom of youth. People made a great deal of youth, but really, when you came to think of it, what a meagre, paltry thing it was ! A man hardly began to live before he was thirty-five !
"Uncle Dan, may we come in?"
The door flew open, and two young persons, with all the disabilities of youth upon their heads, came rustling in upon the old bachelor's misanthropic reverie. Instantly the atmosphere had changed.
" It was very good fun," May re-marked, as she perched upon the arm of her uncle's chair. " They shrieked ` Margherita' and ` Santa Lucia' and a lot of opera airs, till we thought we should lose our tympanums, and so we came away."
" We were in quite as much danger of losing our manners," Pauline interposed. " We sat next a delicious English girl, pretty as a picture and unresponsive as a statue, and we simply dragged her into conversation. She took us for English and was terribly shocked to find we were Americans, and not even Canadians at that. ` You don't mean to say that you come from the States ! ' she cried, quite forgetting that she was a statue. And then May got wicked, as she always does when her patriotism is touched."
" Nonsense ! " May broke in ; " it is n't patriotism ; it 's self-respect."
" And how did you work off your self-respect ? " asked Uncle Dan, deeply interested.
" I told her I thought it was very strange that English people should mistake us. That we never mistook them ; we knew at a glance a person from the Isles. She rose to it like a tennis-ball, and asked what isles I referred to. ` Why, the British Isles,' I answered, innocently. And then she looked mystified, and Pauline discovered that the noise was very fatiguing, and we came away."
For half-an-hour Uncle Dan listened, highly diverted, to the chatter of the girls, and it never once occurred to him to remember the meagreness and paltriness of their condition. After they had left him, he turned to the window, feeling that the dreariness without and within was a very transitory and inconsequent thing. And to I a change had come. The influx of youth would appear to have put to flight other clouds than those of a morbid mind. The rain had altogether ceased. He could see the roses gleaming moistly in the circles of electric light. The serenaders were just pushing away in their big barge, with colored lanterns swaying in the breeze. They were beginning to sing, and their voices sounded sweet and melodious in the open air. Above the Salute the clouds were breaking away, and there were stars gleaming in the deep blue clearing.
" Have you seen the stars, Uncle Dan ? " came Pauline's voice through the key-hole. " We 're going to have a glorious day tomorrow ! "