( Originally Published 1896 )
THEY had been spending an hour among the wonderful glooms and gleams of St. Mark's, and now they had mounted to the high gallery that spans the space between pillar and pillar. The Colonel had looked twice at his watch, for he had an appointment with himself, so to speak, and he proposed to leave the girls to the study of the gold mosaics which they seemed inclined to take seriously. For the moment they were leaning upon the stone balustrade, looking down into the great dim spaces of the church.
" I wish I knew whether it was really good, " said May, lifting her golden head in deprecation of a possibly misguided admiration. " It is so beautiful that I'm dreadfully afraid it is meretricious."
" It is really good," said a voice close at hand. " I think we may set our minds at rest about that."
The voice was its own passport and no one thought of taking the remark amiss. Uncle Dan, who had been consulting his watch for the third time, looked up with a twinkle of good understanding, which the appearance of the speaker justified. The young man was possessed of a good figure and a good face, as well as of a good voice.
Somewhat startled, the girls turned and discovered that they had been obstructing the narrow passage.
" Oh, I beg your pardon ! " they both cried, as they retreated into an angle of the gallery. " You couldn't pass us by."
" I didn't particularly want to," the stranger replied, quite at his ease. " This is one of the best points of view," and it was much to his credit that he did not give the obvious turn to his remark by looking at the two girls as he made it for neither the beauty. of the youthful sceptic nor the quiet distinction of her sister was likely to have been lost upon a man of his stamp. That they were sisters, unlike as they were, could not have escaped the most casual observer.
" Then you know what is good," May remarked, in perfect good faith.
" I know this is good," he answered ; " and I am sure it is much too good to be interrupted."
He was at the disadvantage of holding his hat in his hand, in deference to place, so that he was unable to indicate a deference to persons by lifting it. Yet he took his leave with so good a manner that the Colonel was moved to detain him. As the stranger made his way past him, the elder man remarked : " It must be worth while to be up on architecture in this part of the world."
" It's worth while to be up on architecture in any part of the world," the young man replied. "Where there is nothing to see there is all the more to do."
He paused a moment, as if St. Mark's were really more interesting than his own opinions. Then : " Have you travelled much in our own West ? " he asked.
" No ; " was the Colonel's unblushing admission ; for he was a New Englander of the New Englanders, and valued his own limitations.
" There 's good work going on out there ; it 's a great field."
" But surely you are not a Westerner ! " the Colonel protested.
"No ; but I sometimes wish I were. It's the thing to be."
There was no challenge in his voice, yet Colonel Steele was half inclined to take umbrage at the unprejudiced statement of fact. The ease, however, with which the young man again indicated a courteous leave-taking without the aid of a hat disarmed criticism, and as the Colonel watched the slowly retreating figure, he willingly accorded to the heresy the indulgence due to youthful vagaries. To be sure, he could not remember that an exaggerated estimate of the Great West had ever been a vagary of his own youth. But then, he supposed that the West had made advances since his day !
A glance at his watch changed the direction of his thoughts, and a few minutes later Vittorio was rowing him swiftly, with the tide, up the Grand Canal. Just as the noon gun roared out from the base of San Giorgio, the Colonel rang the bell of the Pallazzo Darino.
She was sitting, the lady of his evening reverie, the lady of a life-long reverie, one might as truly say, just as he had hoped to find her, alone and disengaged. Two or three open letters lay upon the table beside her, but they lay there meekly, as if they knew that they must bide their time.
" Ah ! Colonel Steele ! "
She spoke his name as no one else had ever done, somehow as if it were a title of nobility, and as she came forward to meet him, the soft rustle of her garments filled him with content. He took the extended hand, and, bending above it, he noted the diamond, in its low, old-fashioned setting, gleaming there alone.
" I am glad you are faithful to Venice," she said. " I hoped you might come this year."
" And you still come every year ? " " Yes."
The white film had spread just as he had anticipated. He could see how complete it was, as she seated herself in the full light of the open window. The Colonel had sometimes been startled to find how his premonitions in regard to her had come true. One year he had said to himself :—she will be paler than usual ; I wonder if she has been ill. And he had found that she had been ill, and there was a fragility and pallor about her that seemed to him quite heart-breaking.
Again he had said to himself she will be wearing crape as in the old times ; I wonder why. And when he had come to her she had told him of her mother's death a few months previous. So to-day he had known of that lace-like whiteness of the beautiful head, and of a certain deepening of the depression of cheek and chin, which had not been there five years ago.
" Yes," she was saying. " I don't find Venice anywhere else, and so I come over every year. Happily, I like the voyage."
The Colonel did not like the voyage, but that was a painful fact which he had never felt called upon to admit.
" This year I have my boy with me," she added. " That is a great pleasure."
"And I have my nieces," he replied, deterred by a curious jealousy from pursuing the subject of the boy.
" How delightful ! That is, I suppose you find it so, since you have brought them."
" Oh, yes ; it makes quite a different thing of travelling. We came over in October. We have been wintering in Rome."
He wondered how he should put it this time. Five words usually sufficed,—five words that meant so much to him, and so little, so intolerably little to her.
"I am glad you have young people with you," she said. " We need them more and more as we grow older."
" Well ; that depends," the Colonel demurred, too loyal to his Pollys, even here and now, to allow them to be regarded generically. " There are not many girls I should want to have on my hands. I think the Pollys are rather exceptional."
" What did you say the name was ? " " Polly ; Polly Beverly."
" And what is the other one's name? '
" Same name. They are both Pollys. I named them myself," he added, with a quite unforeseen revival of that agreeable self-satisfaction which he never could conceal in this connection.
And then, to his own surprise, he found himself entering with much gusto upon the story of their christening. By the time he had finished, he felt quite toned up and invigorated.
" Tell me some more about them," she begged.
She was leaning back in her seat, serenely receptive. The Colonel, sitting opposite to her in the straight-backed chair such as he always chose, noted, with a curiously disengaged pleasure, the wonderful opaline quality of the impression she made. The soft gray folds of her dress, the still more softened gray of the hair, and the deep gray of the beautiful eyes,—none of these quiet shades were dull and fixed. A delicate play of light and shadow made them vital, as the gray of the lagoons is vital, when there are clouds before the sun, and a strange, mystic luminousness traverses their tranquil spaces. She had always reminded him of the lagoons. The association only seemed to make each more exquisite and apart. And now, as he told her about his Pollys, it was with very much the same sense of perfect gratification with which he had taken them out upon the water the day before. There was also the same singular absence of the old, familiar pain and oppression.
" What are they interested in? " she asked, and there could be no doubt in the Colonel's mind that she really cared to know.
" Well ; they are interested in pretty much everything, though in a different way. For instance, they are making short work of Italian. They speak bet-ter than I do, after all these years," he declared with delighted self-depreciation, " though perhaps that 's not much to brag of. One of them has got the accent and the other the grammar ; so they pull very well together. Then the younger one can sing like a bird."
The Colonel was warming to his subject, and the Signora, as he liked to call her, did not interrupt.
" She has been studying with F'irenzo in Rome. He says she 's got a tip-top voice and plenty of execution. Sketches, too,—not particularly well, though. Her things look right enough, but somehow they don't say much. Rirenzo thinks that 's the trouble with her singing. Good voice, you know, but it does n't speak. Young, I suppose ! That 's it ; eh?"
" Twenty years old, you say? Yes, I should call that young ! And the other one ? Tell me about her."
" Well, Polly has n't much ambition. Nice contralto voice, not much cultivated. Rather a contralto little woman, don't you know ? The kind that some-how warms the cockles of your heart. Lots of character, too. There 's nothing weak about Polly. You '11 like her."
" I'm sure I shall. And what has she been about all these years ? Twenty-seven, did you say ? "
" Well, family matters mostly. They've kept her pretty busy. She's the eldest you know. She has married off three of them already."
" Three sisters ? "
" No ; two sisters and a father. There 's nobody left now, but these two.'
It was all very like that trip on the la-goons yesterday ; only, in the one case, he had seen the lagoons through the eyes of his Pollys, while to-day he seemed to be seeing his Pollys, through the eyes of the woman he loved. And he found that gracious sharing of his interest a balm to the old wound, and he was soothed and beguiled into a strange new acquiescence. It would come again, the importunate trouble. He should, in a very few minutes, bring down upon himself that gentle refusal, more poignant in its kindness than scorn or misprision would have been.
As he sat there touching upon one characteristic and another of his Pollys, in the direct, soldiery fashion that cuts through ordinary modes of speech, clean and incisive as a sword-point, he vaguely felt that this was only a postponement, a respite. It could not last, this extraordinary, unaccountable resignation. He was not sure that he should approve of it if it did. But, meantime, he had not told her how the girls had enjoyed riding on the Campagna, and how they had followed the hunt one day, and not a bone broken ! Nor how they had got to know their way about Rome like a book, and how—really, the subject was quite inexhaustible !
The sun was shining like mad upon the palaces opposite, and as he looked across the flower-boxes in the window, he felt quite in sympathy with this high noon of light and color. A steamboat shrieked beneath the window, and the discordant sound hardly seemed an intrusion. And then, suddenly, taking him quite at unawares, a firm step resounded upon the hard, smooth conglomerate of the broad passage-way, and—" Here is Geof ! " his mother announced. " You would hardly know him, Colonel ! "
The Colonel rose to his feet and turned toward the door, guiltily conscious that he had evaded the subject of Geof. As his eye fell upon the lithe, vigorous figure coming toward him, he recognized the fact that evasion was no longer possible. An instant later he had recognized the young architect of Western proclivities whom he had taken such a liking to an hour ago.
" So you are Geof," the Colonel ex-claimed. " I might have known it, too, though I had quite forgotten that you were grown up."
" And you are Colonel Steele ! Why, this is great ! You used to be first rate to me when I was a little chap. Were those your daughters in the gallery ? "
" No ; my nieces," said the Colonel, and his spirits went up like a cork. He knew the Signora was great friends with her son, but she evidently understood where to draw the line !
" And I may bring them to see you, Signora ? "
" The sooner the better. Why not this afternoon ? We can have tea early and get a couple of hours on the lagoon in the pretty light. I 'm afraid you have an engagement, have n't you, Geof ? "
" Oh, I don't mind throwing Kenwick over. He 'll keep," and the young man stepped to the other window and flung it open.
Geoffry Daymond went down to the door with his mother's old friend, but he had the tact not to offer him a hand across the plank to the gondola ; an act of forbearance which was not lost upon the Colonel.
" Not a bit like his mother," the Colonel was saying to himself. " Not a bit. Wonder if he takes after his father. The kind of man that would stick in a woman's memory, I should say."
And then, just as the gondola was passing the house where the little stone girls keep their uncomprehending outlook upon the world, a sharp pang took him, followed by a strange,—was it a disloyal—sense of relief, and he exclaimed, under his breath—" I never asked her ! "